Recently, reason.tv reporter Michelle Fields interviewed actor Matt Damon at the “Save Our Schools March” in Washington, D.C. The former Students For Liberty Campus Coordinator questioned Damon about the tenure system that guarantees jobs for teachers of any quality. Personally, I’d like to get away from my “MBA style thinking” and ask Damon another question: what if movie theaters were run like public schools?
I ask this not to show how government-run services would limit quality, stagnate innovation, and deprive people of their right to choose; Don Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University has already done so masterfully on Café Hayek recently, analogizing schools to grocery stores to explain the importance of choice and competition. I also ask this not to demonstrate how such a public theater would limit innovation in things like sound and picture quality (would we have Dolby Surround Sound or 3D movies?); Boudreaux’s example, again, has already shown the self-evident importance of choice in providing and improving the goods we want and need. Rather, I’d like to analyze my cinematic scenario in terms of the marketplace of ideas.
Imagine a world where movie theaters are owned and operated by the government. People are forced to fund and visit their local movie theater and are prohibited from visiting any other theater without special permission. The government controls all content in the movies. A Board of Film in each district determines what movies are shown in what theater. State legislators allocate money for the district and set tax rates. They indirectly control the content in the theaters through this mechanism. A U.S. Department of Cinema provides further funding and “oversight” over the content of movies in the local theaters. State and federal governments also ensure that all theaters are equal by setting state and federal movie standards.
It is clear that this system would cause public outrage. Americans would not stand for this assault on freedom of speech. Such a public cinema would restrict the spread of ideas and prevent movies that are critical of the government and status quo from being screened. Conservative Boards of Film might restrict movies with themes that are judged to be immoral and dangerous for society. Liberal Boards of Film might restrict movies that are critical of the government or promote the free market. Such a policy would devolve into a censorship nightmare.
The progress of human civilization relies on the open exchange of ideas. Allowing one group to decide which ideas are appropriate, limits progress and stagnates human development. It is just as important to hear the bad ideas as it is to hear the good ones. Not only is it impossible to know which ideas are good before they exist, it is also impossible to know an idea is good unless you can compare it to something.
If it is ridiculous to think about allowing the government to restrict the ideas presented by movies, where is the outrage over public schools? School boards set the curriculum and tell teachers what they can teach and what books they can use. The state and federal governments set standards and control the purse strings to make sure the school boards mandate the “right ideas.” They make such ideas uniform so that all schools are teaching roughly the same curriculum. There is no marketplace of ideas. “controversial” ones are not heard.
Matt Damon is an entertainer, but for better or for worse, he is also a dealer in ideas. He supports the government control of ideas in education, but would he support government control of ideas in movies? Would the Board of Cinema have approved of this scene?