The debate about energy in South Africa is crucial the future of our economy. Do we want and need gas? Is nuclear safe? Does coal have a future? Is Eskom management trustworthy? Is the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy in the pocket of energy companies who make donations to his party? These are all critical questions, but none can be reliably answered without a free flow of information and vigorous debate in which everyone feels able to speak their minds.
I raise this because the business community pays fleeting attention to the importance of free expression, even though it has such a big impact on each of their businesses and in the economy as a whole.
Perhaps this is because we usually argue about the importance of free expression for democracy, governance and human rights. Perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to how important it is to the economy and prosperity, so that business will sit up and take notice.
In fact, quite a lot has been said and written about the relationship between free speech and the economy.
For one thing, innovation – so important to any economy – requires collaboration, communication and the freedom to express and exchange new and challenging ideas without fear – in a phrase, free expression. Restrict a society’s communication and you limit its capacity for ideas and invention.
To quote Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes Magazine: “Freedom of expression goes hand in hand with economic progress. A society that restricts speech will restrict the freedom that is central to the creativity and experimentation that leads to inventions and innovations, that raise humanity’s standard of living.”
For another, so many business decisions depend on data and information, and these are less likely to be accurate, reliable and available in a society without a free flow of information.
Thirdly, free speech is crucial to correcting errors. Businesses and investors make mistakes; whether they can spot and correct them quickly depends often on whether their staff, customers, consultants and others feel relaxed about speaking their minds. This points to the importance of a free speech culture inside enterprises as well as in the public domain.
And then, of course, there is the impact of corruption. We have seen how devastating rampant corruption is to infrastructure and the institutions we need for a thriving economy and for business to operate effectively. We have also seen how one of our best weapons against corruption is the freedom of investigative journalists to tell us where and when it is happening, who is behind it, and to publish without fear of retribution.
In the wake of the Zuma presidency, many business leaders gave generously in support of investigative reporting. They saw the role these journalists had played in exposing state capture.
Once the scoundrels – or at least some of them – were bundled out of government, though, many of the business community moved on to other things, leaving journalism flailing around, and have been sometimes irritated about demands for greater corporate transparency. These business leaders have failed to see the long-term importance for their own businesses of protecting and enabling a culture of free speech and accountability, of promoting public accountability by practicing it.
Economists like to argue for free speech on the basis that we need a free market of ideas, much like any market, to ensure that we achieve the best results through an open contestation of ideas. The best ideas will rise above the lesser ones, it is argued.
But we also know that markets are imperfect, and that the best products don’t always win out. Sometimes monopolies develop. Certainly, our market of ideas in this part of the world is imbalanced, with some having much more scope to access information and exercise their free speech than others. Inequality distorts the market.
Some economists have even tried to develop mathematical formulas to weigh up the costs of free speech against the advantages it brings. No doubt there are costs, and we have to constantly match them against the advantages, though it hard to see how this can be done mathematically.
Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen famously investigated famines and pointed out that they did not happen in democracies. Democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentives to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes,” he wrote in Democracy and Freedom. Of course, we know that democracy does not prevent hunger, but when a major newspaper report child huner, then governments which want to be re-elected have to deal with it before it becomes famine.
Contrast that to Russia, where Putin does not have to account for the futile deaths of thousands of soldiers because there is no media freedom in his country.
It is a chilling reminder that building and defending a culture of free expression is a key part of building a more prosperous economy.
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University.