After Trump and others were purged from social media, their defenders argued that this was a violation of their right to free expression. As noted in the previous essay, the 1st Amendment does not apply in this situation. But a moral argument can be made that the right of free expression should apply to businesses. This could then be used to argue that there should be a law or laws that protect this right. This would be a radical change: businesses now enjoy a broad freedom to use their power to coerce employees and customers and thus restrict their right of expression. It can be countered that employees have the freedom to quit and customers have the liberty to take their business elsewhere and thus no additional protection is needed.
One reply is to point out that quitting or taking one’s business elsewhere might not be a viable option. For example, the big tech companies effectively control social media and there are currently no comparable alternatives to services such as Twitter and Facebook. A person who is banned by social media is thus silenced by economic power of these companies. As another example, an employee who must choose between not expressing their political views outside of work and keeping their job might not be able to afford to quit—and thus they are silenced by the power of economic coercion. This seems to be a problem and one that is not just limited to the freedom of expression.
As I have noted in other essays, businesses have considerable freedom in exercising power over employees and customers. To illustrate, employees can be fired at will and often have little or no right to privacy when it comes to their employer. Customers can be severely restricted in their choices (as in the case of social media) and subject to harms that are legal to inflict (or barely and rarely punished). The problem is that some people (such as Mark Zuckerberg) have far greater economic power than others and have the freedom to use it in ways that are harmful to others. They can, for example, use their economic power to inflict harms that would be illegal to inflict using physical power. To illustrate this point, I offer the following tale.
Imagine, if you will, that I formed my own military force and thus became the dominant private physical force (as opposed to economic force) in a town. Imagine that I acted in all ways as a business would, but I used the physical force of my military rather than the economic force of a business. As an example, rather than coerce employees with the threat of being fired to silence their political speech I threatened people with expulsion from the town I control. Rather than using my ownership of social media to ban people I had my forces jam their signals using our equipment. Rather than using my economic clout to get away with polluting, I transported the waste I wanted to dump in armed convoys to deter the authorities from stopping me. And so on: for everything that businesses freely and legally do because they have the economic power to coerce people, I would use the physical force of my military to do the same things. I would, of course, be careful to not inflict anymore harm than a business could. For example, to silence a person I disagreed with I would use the power of my army to take away what they would lose if they were fired by a company—I would not kill them and would simply have my security forces do what business security or the police would do if an employee were fired.
My actions would, of course, be illegal—the use of physical force by people other than state authorities is tightly restricted (although businesses do get to operate security forces). I do agree that such actions should be illegal—people should not be allowed to use their advantage in power to harm others.
My actions would also be immoral. Inflicting such harms would be wrong under almost any moral theory. But it is not my use of physical force that makes the actions immoral—I was careful to note that my military would do no more harm than businesses can legally inflict. The actions are wrong because of the harm they inflict and the rights they violate. That is, it does not matter if you are coerced into silence by the threat of being fired or the threat of being kept physically (but gently) away from work by my forces. The same harm is being inflicted; the only difference is the type of power being exercised (and, again, I emphasize that my forces would be careful to inflict no more harm than a business would). It should be obvious why the law allows such freedom for economic coercion while restricting and punishing physical coercion: we cannot compete with the ruling economic class in an economic competition, but we could kill them all. To use a smaller scale example, your boss has more economic power than you and can thus silence you by threatening to fire you. But if you and your fellow workers were free to protect yourself from economic coercion with equal physical force, your right of free expression would be much better protected. But, of course, having to do this sort of fighting would take us back into a state of nature—something that would be undesirable. A more sensible and moral approach would be to treat economic force as we treat physical force—something to be regulated by law to prevent the powerful from harming others and violating their rights. If you think that I should not be able to use my private army to replicate all the things businesses can do with their economic power, then you should agree that businesses should also be restricted in their use of economic force the same ways that the use of physical force is restricted.
One can, of course, argue that there is a relevant difference between physical and economic force that would break the analogy. But this would require avoiding the Perfect Analogy Fallacy (rejecting an analogy by setting the standards of similarity too high). This can be done by clearly showing why inflicting the exact same harms using economic force is morally acceptable while using comparable physical force to inflict identical harms would be wrong. That is, it would be morally fine to silence a person through the threat of firing them, but morally wrong to silence a person by carefully blocking their efforts to reach their job to work. And, of course, businesses can use force (or get the state to use force) to keep fired employees from returning to the job, so the comparison is quite apt.
In conclusion, I have advanced a morally consistent position: people should be protected from wrongful harms and violations of rights inflicted on them using force whether that force is physical or economic. As such, businesses should (in general) be subject to restrictions analogous to those in place to protect people from physical coercion.
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