Legalise Lying: Why Libel Laws are utter rubbish.

And why it shouldn’t be a crime to falsely accuse Lord McAlpine as a paedophile

 

I wrote before why the only rights we have are property rights. So the only justification for ever arresting/prosecuting/locking someone up for something is if they infringe other people’s property rights.

Lying doesn’t do this. When Sally Bercow and Philip Schofield falsely outed people like Lord McAlpine as paedophiles they didn’t impact on his property rights one bit. When someone lies about you it affects your reputation, but reputation isn’t something you own. What is a reputation but other people’s views of you, their thoughts, in their head? If it belongs to anyone it belongs to the people who think it, and as it was they who chose to change their opinion there has been no property rights violation.

You have no right to control what others think about you, even if it affects your ability to earn money — after all you have no right to a certain level of income. If I am to spread vicious rumours about you then, as long as I don’t break into your house to do it, or try to make it seem real by initiating violence against you then I have infringed on none of your property rights. You can’t own other peoples thoughts, you do not have a right to control what other people think of you.

So what does this mean practically? Well frankly if anyone wants to write, print or say whatever they want about you then that is their prerogative. I would abolish all libel laws and things like defamation.

The first criticism I hear about this is that newspapers would start lying left right and centre about people in order to get headlines. But such short term thinking is incredibly unrealistic. One of the most precious things to newspapers is reputation: News of the World, one of the most profitable papers ever was shut down precisely because of reputational damage. If Newspaper X starts printing lie Y about person Z then it is absolutely in the interest of papers A B and C to expose X for being a liar. No only is Z cleared of the wrong but X is likely to lose a great deal of readership (while people like papers that suit their biases they also don’t like being outright lied to) the very market mechanism itself  will lead to papers being able to expose others for lying. After all it was newspapers themselves who first uncovered the phone hacking scandal.

Secondly, with knowledge that anyone can say whatever they like about anyone else people will, rightly, be a lot more sceptical about shocking stories which expose people. When people read something in a newspaper now they seem to take it as fact, as opposed to when they read it on twitter then are far more sceptical about information. That same level of questioning and scepticism would – in my eyes – be beneficial, allowing people to question the agendas newspapers and TV channels have, rather than accepting them as a fact.

Libel laws in Britain rightly get an awful lot of flak, they are at the moment a joke. But while many propose reforming them I believe they have no place in the statute book at all. It is not for the state to tell you whether to lie or not, it is your own morals that you should look to. Lying does not cause physical harm, it does not infringe on any property rights. The best way to counter liars is to expose them for what they are, not use the apparatus of a coercing state to enforce your own morality upon them.

 

14 COMMENTS

  1. To Richard above: by ‘in a narrow sense’, I meant that you *could* frame defamation as a form of property damage, if you consider one’s reputation part of one’s property, though that’s a bit of a stretch. I don’t think that’s necessary to justify libel laws though, unless you think all rights are based in property rights.

    On the economic damage point – of course it’s true that businesses cause economic harm to one another all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. But I do think there’s such a thing as unfair competition, and there are things they shouldn’t be allowed to do; I’d say deliberately spreading malicious lies about their competitors is among those, although you do have to be careful where you draw the line to avoid restricting legitimate speech.

  2. @ Simon R,

    “So your take is that lying to sell your own products is fraud, but lying to stop others buying your competitors’ products is permissible… not sure you can justify that one…”

    Fraud would be agreeing to sell one thing and providing something else, so there is a property violation, as you have not provided the thing you agreed to sell, which, since the other person bought it, now belongs to them.

    I think it is possible (though immoral) to lie to sell your products without this being automatically fraud.

    • ofc it is. do you read every single line of a contract when you buy something, or further to that, do you actually understand everything in contracts? If you do, how many people can say the same?

      • That’s irrelevant. What I’m saying is that it is possible to lie without committing the crime of fraud. For instance, if a man tried on a hat in a hat shop and asked the assistant’s opinion if it looked good, and he said ‘yes, it really suits you’ but in his heart he thought ‘no, you look an idiot’, he would be lying, but I don’t believe he would be convicted of fraud.

  3. I totally agree; abolish libel laws, and I wrote a couple of things at libertarianhome on the subject a while back – and found very little agreement I must say, but there is no property right in one’s reputation.

    @ Alisdair,
    “And while deliberately publishing false information about someone might not violate property rights in a narrow sense, it can definitely cause real economic damage to them, for example by driving a competitor out of business.”

    What do you mean by “in a narrow sense”? Either there is or there isn’t a property right, surely? As for causing economic damage, how is this relevant? If I set up a business next to yours, and was better, this would cause real economic damage also, but it would not violate your property rights.
    What should be noted is that spreading malicious lies about someone is most certainly immoral, and should be frowned upon by society. The question is whether we have the confidence in our political philosophy to ‘punish’ such an immoral act without recourse to law.

    Fraud is absolutely different, and clearly a violation of property, so should be treated as a crime. Perhaps the abolition of libel would lead to the introduction of contracts, binding parties to telling the truth?

  4. “You have no right to control what others think about you”

    So your take is that lying to sell your own products is fraud, but lying to stop others buying your competitors’ products is permissible… not sure you can justify that one…

  5. But I thought you didn’t believe in free speech, Olly? 🙂

    Actually, I’m inclined to agree with you on this one: not for any principled reason, just on the grounds that our current libel laws probably cause more harm than good. It’s arguable that the punitive libel laws in this country are a prime reason Jimmy Savile’s crimes weren’t exposed until after his death.

    That said, abolishing the libel laws entirely would leave no recourse to the likes of Chris Jeffries, an innocent man falsely accused by most of the media of being a murderer. Contrary to what you suggest here, publishing falsehoods rarely does much harm to papers: in fact, they have a great commercial interest in doing so. The News of the World wasn’t closed down because it routinely libelled people – as you say, it was hugely successful – but because of its involvement in phone-hacking.

    And while deliberately publishing false information about someone might not violate property rights in a narrow sense, it can definitely cause real economic damage to them, for example by driving a competitor out of business.

    So, in principle, a tort of libel is probably worth having; but our current libel law goes way too far. Better than abolishing it outright would be to reform it so it gives greater allowance for free speech, and to make the awards for libel less ruinously huge.

  6. Although I agree with free speech, I think fraud must be still considered unlawful. If a shopkeeper sells someone a bottle of something and says “this will restore your hair”, and does so knowing it will not, then he has affected another person’s property (got the customer’s money via contract where he has knowingly made a false promise).

    In a similar way, if someone lies they cause another to make a decision based on false information which then hurts them (which does affect their body/property).

    Of course, someone will always claim they didn’t know they were lying, but where it can be proven, or is confessed, I think the perpetrator should be liable for criminal prosecution (and compensation to the victim).

    • No. Fraud’s illegality is perfectly consistent with property rights. Property rights imply the right to make contracts about said property. If “fraud” involves the theft of property through non-fulfilment of a voluntary contract then it is a violation of property rights.

  7. So if Amazon were to wrongly slate another brand, would you stop shopping there? I can’t say I would.

    Also, some newspapers could run a story which is false, get paid loads via readership and adverts etc, the public then 6 months later realises they were wrong, the paper says sorry, but the paper has made a huge amount of money from running the story in the first place. And obviously people don’t remember every single thing that a newspaper has done – how many stories it has wrongly printed etc – so it may not necessarily pay for it via readership losses and in all circumstances.

    We are not entitled to a certain level of income, you say; but we are entitled to slate people to try and take away theirs?

    Nice piece, but I don’t think I agree

  8. Libel isn’t and hasn’t been a crime since the Coroner’s and Justice Act 2009 came into force (12 January 2010). Just a legal point of information. It’s a tort, a civil offence, for which you get fined unless you can show that it’s true, that it’s your opinion or that it’s made with correct privilege (in court etc.)

    Lying in certain circumstances should be a crime. e.g. for perjury. It obstructs the course of justice.

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