Yelling “Fire !” in a crowded theater

Choice is the most adaptative and harmonious concept there is. Because there are choices, conscious or unconscious, harmony can exist.

Take any evolutionary system, in the large sense – an economy, for example. A free economy works perfectly because everyone’s rights are protected, and therefore the system maximizes economical choice. Even if selection would still apply to products and economical agents, the process could never work if everything was restricted to few or only one choice. If people no longer like product X, but nothing except product X can be produced, adaptation will never happen.

The same thing is true for social issues. Suppose we enforce total censorship except for a set of “correct” ideas (a step we have already undertaken with Political Correctness). Now, a rational mind cannot understand without years of effort any viewpoint except that which is enforced, for any reasonable depth. As in the application of newspeak in 1984, bad ideologies or concepts become vague and only known to the extent that we know they are part of what is “forbidden”.

Choice is advantageous : that much is obvious even to the thickest of totalitarists. However, most people would claim that the Choice Criteria has its limits, that it cannot be applied consistently, that it can be overridden by other considerations.

One could make a deductive argument that arguing against the Choice Criteria implies that one is using Choice in order to reason about it, and is therefore being self-defeating. This is simply because Choice is the basis of reason – that we have the free will necessary to consider options and weight evidence. And since reason is self-evident (that is, cannot be refuted without being circular), Choice must also be self-evident.

But let’s consider the more pragmatic consequences of the issue, since epistemic arguments are unlikely to be objected against. Indeed, most people would agree that the theory is sound, but that reality doesn’t necessarily follow it. While this is of course nonsensical, we must examine concrete cases in order to show these people how the Choice Criteria is primary.

The most well-known example is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, first popularized by Abraham Lincoln (ironically, the first socialist president). An advocate of limiting choice would argue that yelling “fire” would have grave consequences, and therefore should be illegal. Letting people use their free speech would lead to destructive chaos, and we need to limit those instances. Therefore, the solution would be to make those choices illegal which can be damageable to other people, even if the person himself is not directly responsible for that damage.

But this is problematic, to say the least. Why should the government regulate my ability to shout “fire” in a crowded theater ? How does this regulation promote the harmony of my interests with those of others ? If people die from being stomped on after I shout “fire !”, I am not the one who killed the person. I am merely a moral agent like any other, who influences other people because these people trust or do not trust me.

This is much like saying that we should not slander people, because it hurts their reputation. But no one is forced to believe slanders just because somebody says them. To claim that I am a criminal for slandering someone is against the harmony of interests and the capacity to reason and choose what I desire to say.

Contrarily to what we might think, a sociolibertarian society would not live this choice as a problem. Take the “yelling fire” example. If the government does not censor such speech, then the other main structure involved would be the theater itself, or whatever entity establishes the functioning of the theater.

Presumably the choice it is faced with is to either let people be free to yell “fire !” or not – or perhaps only when there is a real fire. It seems to be reasonable to adopt the latter solutions. Those who do not restrict speech in this manner may find themselves in problems, and will soon rethink their policies. Furthermore, it is simple good sense not to yell “fire !” when there is no fire. Who could disagree ?

Of course, the act of killing another person is illegal, whenever provoked by one’s own thoughts or by obeying a shout from someone else. Often the undertone behind the “yelling fire” problem is the premise of the absence of free will – that people are dependant on stimuli and do not have independant thought.

This brief example highlights how the Choice Criteria effects a free market of ideas, and how, by virtue of being a free market, ideas will tend to adapt themselves to the circumstances. The use of force remaining always illegal, other ideas are often cultural or traditional, and are transitory. The government is no better at determining these ideas than anyone else, especially since public officers are as irrational as any other kind of people. We find therefore that the Choice Criteria is a superior alternative to enforced rules, even in cases where the actions being questioned are indirectly destructive.