Prelude: Commentary from the St. Gallen Symposium
The 2020 Essay Review by PD Dr Michael Festl, Lecturer of Philosophy at the University of St.Gallen, comprises a selection of 14 published essays representative of this year’s competition and discusses them in the form of a review that analyses both the ideas and intergenerational aspect of our topic: Freedom Revisited.
Following the postponement of the St. Gallen Symposium and the consequential cancellation of the 2020 essay competition, our team decided to look for an alternative way to derive an essay summary. Based on the preliminary evaluation of the Academic Jury, a handful of thought-provoking ideas were identified and selected for a more compact review. The student essays used represent a diverse collection of unique arguments and perspectives.
One might explain this diagnosis with a déformation professionelle, i.e. the observation that one sees, first of all, what one is used to seeing. Yet, at least as a trained philosopher, I found myself surprised – in a positive way – by the fact that the student authors are seemingly well-versed in philosophy. In any case, almost each of the articles refers to at least one classical philosopher: from Montesquieu to Sartre, from Descartes to Popper, from Mill to Berlin, a list that could be continued. If this is, in fact, good news remains to be seen, since the career of philosophers trying to implement their ideas in reality is a chequered one with Plato’s attempts in Syracuse as the first – and failed – example. Yet, it is already certain that the philosophical references – as they appear in the papers summarized here – are a testament to, and an emphasis of, the fact that these papers are indeed of outstanding quality. The authors are idealistic as aspiring future leaders must be, and will hopefully remain, once they are leaders, period, as well as constructively critical of Western society; this is the spirit in which they are written. Beyond these two characteristics that are, for good reasons, associated with philosophy, the papers also depict a business attitude; they are brimming with possible solutions to the problems haunting the world in the first half of the 21st century. This blend of philosophy and management, reflection and action, provides a firm basis for optimism. The future seems to be in good hands, if these papers are representative of how this future will be handled.
From a content perspective, the papers are diverse. They address a variety of topics, foci, and standpoints. Using a rough classification, they fall into three different classes. A first class of papers is concerned with freedom of expression and freedom of opinion and how these two are challenged by new, especially digital technologies. A second class of papers deals with regulations needed to cope with the various problems of our global era. A third class is interested in how to rethink the concept of freedom, given the fact that our world today is very different to the world in which the concept of freedom that we still rely on was shaped.
Freedom of Opinion and Expression
The students defend freedom of opinion and expression mostly on the grounds that these are basic human rights, intimately connected to a free and self-determined life. By comparison, the so-called epistemological argument for free speech – the argument that free speech is crucial for solving existing political and social problems – discussed extensively in philosophy in past years plays a minor role in their defence of this value. This implies that free speech, as I will abbreviate ‘freedom of opinion and expression’ in the following, is meant to be a basic value in its own right and not a value derivative for solving problems. This decision, conscious or unconscious, underlines how seriously the students take this right.
At the same time, they see this right threatened; not by – so they argue, mean-spirited governments or leaders – but by technological developments connected especially to social media. Drawing on the work of Eli Pariser, two contributions identify filter bubbles as a major threat to free speech in the world wide web. ‘Filter bubble’ is a fancy term for what emerges when social media platforms supply their users with advertisement and information based on previous searches and uses. This way, the students argue, people become increasingly narrow-minded, streamlined by information platforms provide; they are no longer able to connect to data, information, and arguments not in line with the beliefs they already hold. One contributor aptly speaks of an emerging online isolation; users of these platforms become ever better connected to their own peer group of opinions while the peer groups themselves increasingly insulate themselves from other peer groups. One author illustrates this effect by invoking the recent election in her home country, Hungary. She reports that she was flabbergasted over the victory of Victor Orbán, given that she heard almost nothing of the arguments in his favour, let alone from people who supported him. She uses this as an indication, self-critical in nature, that she had lived in her very own personal filter bubble of people critical of Orbán’s policies.
Another contribution connects filter bubble threat to the increasing fragmentation of Western societies. Such fragmentation, already well under way, is exacerbated by filter bubbles which make it increasingly more comfortable for people to stay in similarly oriented groups, undisturbed by the opinions and arguments of others. As this author submits for consideration, fragmentation can be a booster to a functioning democracy by rendering discourse more stimulating and controversial, and by increasing participation and civic engagement, this is not the case if citizens are not touch with opposing beliefs, nor interested in such contact with ‘out-groups’. This also influences more traditional journalism; print journalists, for example, take up this lead and start to supply their idiosyncratic audiences with information that caters to their already held beliefs. The author proposes that many media sources have deteriorated into mere opinion echo chambers.
The students dealing with this topic agree; the biggest problem is that some filter bubbles have become so effective that people no longer even realize that they live in such a bubble. Unaware of the problem, not even aware that a problem could exist, they are incapable of breaking free from the bubble. Instead of being self-determined and critical citizens, they are reduced to reciting opinions that others forge for them and that, for contingent reasons, cater to the opinions they already hold. A personal, individual forming of opinions and beliefs based on facts, information, and agendas no longer takes place. People who have succumbed to filter bubbles are, to use Immanuel Kant’s famous phrase, ‘entmündigt’, deprived of a mouth, as a literal translation of this German term would read, commonly translated into English as ‘put into nonage’. This reference to Kant is also used in the German translation of Eli Pariser’s leading book on the debate, “The Filter Bubble. What the Internet is Hiding from You” in the English original or “Filter Bubble. Wie wir im Internet entmündigt werden” in the German translation.
A further problem connected to the internet and to freedom of speech is linked to the issue of privacy. The internet is legitimately used, the students argue, for voicing one’s opinions and for trying to convince others. As far as the filter bubble, this use of the internet should be supported since, if many people spread their beliefs, others have a higher likelihood of getting in touch with diverse opinions. Yet, this use of the internet often leads to privacy problems. Hence data governance – what to do with the individual user data that the internet gathers – is an important issue, according to the students.
They admonish that a coherent data governance regime is missing today and ponder how to overcome this situation; contributors are here not always in agreement. Some call on the nation states to make and enforce the rules. Others argue that nation states are not the right addressees, given that data in the internet flows on a supranational, even global level. Hence, a call for a global data governance structure emerges. Yet, all contributors agree that it is, first and foremost, the individual user who should contribute to the safety of his/her own data by questioning what internet providers do with their data and by avoiding sites with an unclear data policy. One author submits that, in some instances, collection of individual data by the internet could be useful in certain domains: for example, when it comes to health care issues where data collection could be helpful in coming up with tailor-made cures. An especially meticulous contribution to the policy issue presents a three-fold plan for dealing with the issue: incentivize self-regulation of social media platforms, couple viral posts with fact-checking reports, and promote digital media literacy.
Finally, one article has a more general take on the issue of free speech and censorship. It is, at the same time, one of the most philosophical contributions, anchoring the arguments to liberal authorities Karl Popper and John Stuart Mill. In our time, that some commentators have dubbed post-truth, the contribution makes clear that the ideal of free speech would be misunderstood if it was interpreted as being allowed to say whatever one wants. In contrast, the author demands that a ‘fine balance between free speech and censorship should be struck’. How this fine balance might look like is expounded based on two different kinds of misinformation of evidence: the Rohingya crises and anti-vaccination campaigns. These two examples are used to demonstrate that, in curbing free speech, we should draw a distinction between bottom-up and top-down misinformation, as well as a distinction between the intent of the misinformation: good or bad faith. As prima facie rules, the contribution argues that we should be more critical of the right to free speech when misinformation is spread in bad faith and, from the top down, less so in cases of good faith and bottom-up. Applying these rules of thumb, the Rohingya situation would be more likely to be a case where censorship could legitimately strike, the anti-vaccine case less likely.
Regulation in a Global Era
In this class of papers, I summarize a set of different topics and approaches that are united by a shared interest in indicating novel ways to regulate society, in sync with the demands of a global world. That there are many examining this topic testifies to the fact that the students are no longer convinced of securing freedom through the laissez-faire principle. Quite the opposite; regulation has become not only an attractive option, but the only option, the vast majority of contributors argue. To revisit freedom hence means to search for new ways of securing freedom via regulation. Freedom and regulation are not conceived of as mutually exclusive, but in need of each other. So, the core question is not whether regulation is needed or not; this question has already been answered in the affirmative. The question that the students pose is: what kind of regulation is needed? Here, on this second question, opinions diverge.
Determining that the traditional welfare state, so successful in the 1960s and 1970s, has become a dinosaur, one contributor searches for new ways of regulating the nation state with the goal of equality and the eradication of poverty. The author promotes the adoption of “Universal Basic Services” as the right way forward. The contribution argues that it is better for the government to freely provide its citizens with basic needs like shelter, health care, education, transport, public housing, wireless internet, etc.; the state guarantees a level playing field and basic sustenance. Based on such a secured foundation, individuals can freely engage in the marketplace. Relying on the concept of positive freedom, about which we will hear more in the next section, the contributor also demonstrates why this approach is superior to the oft-discussed alternative of Universal Basic Income. As opposed to the latter, in which money is given out to spend however the recipients want, the approach “Universal Basic Services” efficiently guarantees the reception of basic needs, eliminating the problem of what to do those who do not spend their income wisely and, in the end, need public help once again.
Other contributions, possibly inspired by the too-big-too-fail problematic as it appeared in the global financial crisis of 2007, see corporate ‘bigness’ as a major impediment to effective regulation in a global age. They argue for a new competition law to secure economic freedom. Currently, the economy suffers from cluster risks that cannot be accepted, either from an economies of scale perspective, or from the consumer surplus that would emerge as an advantage of the cluster risk. At the same time, one student argues that it is essential that individual entrepreneurs are given the chance to introduce and find financial support for their new ideas. The student argues that, also in the age of Artificial Intelligence, pathbreaking revolutions still come from below, from the ‘Copernicuses’ of the economy, as opposed to the big corporate giants.
A third set of contributions connects the regulation problematic to the issue of migration. Deeply critical of the way the Western world is currently treating migrants, the writers argue that it is of utmost importance to defend, first of all, migrants’ freedoms. The single most important policy change, it is argued, is to change responsibilities for migrants. It should no longer be each nation state for herself deciding who is allowed into the country and who is not. Rather, migration is an issue that needs to be dealt with on a supranational, ideally on a global level. Thus, single nation states need to contribute their fair share in accepting migrants. Again, here a change to a regime of positive freedom is advocated in steering regulation: international vs. national regulation. Migration policies should not rest on principles of non-refoulement or rights against arbitrary detention but provide migrants with positive rights to, among other things, food, education, health, and skill-learning. This is not only useful, the author claims, to the migrant herself, but also to the possible future host country, equipping the migrants with the means to lead self-reliant lives.
In a similar vein, another contribution argues for an extension of the right to asylum for environmental reasons. With man-made climate change already advanced – caused mostly by rich Western nations leaving the most detrimental effects to the poorer countries predominantly in the global South – a right to asylum out of climate catastrophe is a no-brainer. Similarly, responsibilities for implementing and realizing this right are not visualised as being determined on national levels – this would be like putting the Western fox in charge of the Southern henhouse – but on the supranational level. The problem is severe enough, the contribution argues, to justify the foundation of a new organization under the umbrella of the United Nations solely devoted to this problem.
The contributions that are interested in the concept of freedom – and how this concept needs to be rethought to render it capable of dealing effectively with the problems of our time – agree that a narrow concept of freedom is partly to blame for the shortcomings of present-day society. Students give various names to this outdated concept of freedom: negative freedom, freedom of non-interference, or freedom of capital. This concept of freedom, whatever name is assigned to it, is blamed for fostering egoistic individualism as part of capitalism tooth-and-claw. Thanks to it, one contributor comments, people “can barely come together and collaborate against [world society’s] common greatest threats such as climate change, poverty, starvation and conflict”.
Opposed to this concept of freedom, the students basically demand two characteristics to enrich a contemporary concept of freedom. The first is a shift from negative to positive freedom, defined as the adoption of policies that make it possible for individuals to be really free ,as opposed to the mere formal permission to be free. In other words, positive freedom entails the idea that individuals need to get access to the means needed to execute the benefits of freedom. What good is it to have the freedom to work less than forty hours a week if that means that I am unable to feed my family with the money that I will then earn, defenders of positive freedom would ask rhetorically.
The second characteristic can be called authenticity. We need to live in a society, one contributor argues, in which the choices people make are truly individual choices. Based on the work of John Stuart Mill, whose famous essay On Liberty provides inspiration to a number of contributors, one can say that people need to overcome the tyranny of the majority. This means that they need to make decisions that are not already structured and shaped by what the majority deems proper. Instead, people need to rely on their own, truly felt, pondered, and questioned beliefs. This connects quite well to the papers on the danger of filter bubbles which can be understood as modern means to inculcate people with beliefs of the majority, or rather, majorities since each bubble presents one possible way of life insulated from the others. For the author, being free implies to not live in a filter bubble, but to reach out and to expose oneself to controversial opinions as part of the process of forming one’s own opinions, opinions that need to be amendable as new information is received and digested.
The means with which to enrich the concept of freedom with these two additional characteristics mostly rely on education, involving technological literacy. One student also asks what this new kind of freedom would imply for labour relations. His key finding is a right for individuals to have more freedom in their working hours and more co-determination in the company they work for. This means, on one hand, that workers should have more freedom to decide when to work and for how long, resulting in the call for a ‘universal basic time’ guaranteed by the state, and allowing workers, among other things, the freedom to take up to two years of paid sabbatical. On the other hand, the author defends the idea of the cooperative type of enterprise: by the way, an idea that goes back to Mill as well. Such cooperatives would give workers a greater say in the company, especially its long-term investments and the products to be produced, thus ensuring that workers’ ideas and wishes have a greater chance of being heard – in the process increasing their economic freedom and self-determination.
To conclude, the papers that I analysed cover the topic of freedom very broadly, from conceptual contributions, to technological threats and opportunities, to the issue of regulation in a global age. Despite this thematic diversity, the papers cohere surprisingly well in their attitude. It is, as I already hinted in the beginning, an attitude of high-spiritedness and self-criticism combined with an ambition to get things done, not by the magic of the marketplace but by the intelligence and scientific-mindedness of – particularly -supranational regulation. This attitude of the new generation of leaders reminds me of the mindset behind the New Deal. Yet, this time, if the students who contributed to this years’ Global Essay Competition get their way, the New Deal will be green and supranational.