The Corner


How ‘Preference Falsification’ Illuminates the Campus Free-Speech Wars

Members of various anti-fascist groups lock arms in front of a line of police on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan on March 5, 2018. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

There is a great deal of survey evidence to suggest that support for free-speech norms is high and rising, that college-educated adults are more supportive than the non-college-educated adults, and that the same is true of liberals as compared to conservatives. Matt Yglesias has gathered some of the evidence over at Vox. Does it follow that conservative complaints about the suppression of speech on college campuses are overblown, as Yglesias suggests?

My colleague David French has forgotten more about free-speech controversies than I’ll ever know, and I’m disinclined to spout off on the subject too much. Briefly, I’ll say that while I’m sympathetic to Yglesias’s impulse — it really is good to test our intuitions with data — I see things a bit differently. The real issue, to my mind, is “preference falsification,” a concept elucidated by economist Timur Kuran in his influential tract Private Truths, Public Lies.

The basic idea is that there are times when an individual might misrepresent her desires in order to win approval or to avoid opprobrium, or worse. Preference falsification can take benign forms that have minimal consequences, such as when you tell a friend that you’d be delighted to help her move her sofa when in fact you’d much rather huff paint fumes in a dark alleyway. In other cases, though, preference falsification can be a serious problem, as in a dictatorship where everyone feels they have no choice but to publicly celebrate the Dear Leader, which in turn leads everyone to believe, incorrectly, that their private misgivings are not widely shared. A really awful regime might have a really long life as a result.

When preference falsification is sufficiently widespread, a belief sincerely held only by a small yet vocal minority can be experienced as a stultifying consensus. Dissenting voices might enjoy the private support of a silent majority (ahem), but that’s of little consequence when expressing dissent seems costly. Social media, for example, can amplify the voices of small minorities to the point where they can exert a kind of social pressure via trolling swarms, etc., which in turn can lead impressionable, status-conscious beings — humans, in other words — to falsify their preferences in an effort to curry favor with their betters. At the same time, widespread preference falsification can give way to a cascade effect: cracks in the (illusory) consensus can quickly give way to its overturning.

In short, it’s perfectly possible that while most people on college campuses are believers in free speech, they’re not especially eager to stick their necks out over it, especially if doing so will make them look bad.

But again, I’m not an expert. If I had my druthers, some portion of the effort now devoted to drawing attention to campus outrages would instead be devoted to defunding low-quality higher-education institutions that fleece their students and demanding that elite higher-education institutions that benefit from favorable tax treatment devote more of their resources to serving the public interest by, for example, providing free or low-cost access to online courses and teaching materials. At this point, the project of seeing to it that universities are truth-seeking rather than rage-promoting institutions seems like a fool’s errand. I’d rather steer young people towards post-secondary institutions that will teach them critical thinking skills, which will likely entail building entirely new ones.


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