I know it when I see it.

Suppose you live in an anarchocapitalist society with unqualified free enterprise. Build your factories, spew smoke from the stacks, dump your trash in the river. The skies are endless, the oceans vast, and externalities don’t matter.

Now suppose one day a group of stationary bandits show up and announce that you may no longer spew waste with impunity. You must find a way to conduct your business without emitting toxic waste, or terminate your business altogether.

What the actual f…, is what any developing country thinks when they see the UN’s carbon emissions targets. Here in the first world, we understand that pollution is harmful to humanity as a whole. So obviously you shouldn’t pour crude oil into the ocean, obviously you shouldn’t smog up the air, obviously you shouldn’t leave hypodermic needles on the Shore.

Our attitude towards pollution is a lot like the attitudes of autocracies toward free speech.

In China, there’s something called “Spiritual Pollution” (精神污染). Not spiritual in the sense of religion, but spirit as in “mood” or “energy” – ie, We got spirit, yes we do!

The Chinese government is generally amenable to environmental protections, and is on track to meet Paris Accord targets nine years early. But the most important step it’s taken to curb harmful emissions is banning climate activists like Greta Thunberg. Carbon dioxide may pollute the atmosphere, but sanctimonious grandstanding pollutes the spirit.

Another example is porn. Republicans have, at various times, advocated for banning pornography under the Communications Decency Act or by emphasizing its ties to human trafficking. It never works because detractors retreat to the Motte of free speech. China cuts to the chase and declares pornography a form of spiritual pollution. Right?? No one ever concludes a porn video in high spirits the way they do after watching Amelie or It’s a Wonderful Life. Just the opposite, in fact.

I’m not pro-censorship, I’m anti-pollution! All of a sudden, content moderation becomes super easy. No more arguing about whether something is fake news or hate speech. If it pollutes the spirit, BAN! Clickbait? BANNED. Outrage porn? BANNED. Breitbart.com? BANNED. Huffpost.com? BANNED. NYtimes.com? BANNED.

I passed through an airport last week, and every single TV screen was displaying impeachment garbage on CNN. Would airport travelers tolerate it if I showed up with a diesel-powered leafblower and proceeded to spew exhaust all over the terminal? NO! So why should we tolerate CNN assaulting our mental capacity in much the same way?

Pollution need not be objective or quantifiable. We have laws against noise pollution, visual pollution, public nuisance. In an ideal anarcho-capitalist world, externalities would all be resolved through voluntary contracts (see also: Coase Theorem). Alas we don’t live in this world, and must rely on a coercive government to protect us from the health effects of environmental pollution, and the enstupidating effects of spiritual pollution.

10 thoughts on “I know it when I see it.

  1. Not CNNs fault that the airport screens were showing their product. The airport businesses made that decision. Was it worse than the alternatives that could be showing? If you didn’t like it why not ask the business you were at to change the channel to your liking?

  2. One of my favorite quotes from Scott Alexander’s [Meditations on Moloch](https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/)

    “Imagine a country full of bioweapon labs, where people toil day and night to invent new infectious agents. The existence of these labs, and their right to throw whatever they develop in the water supply is protected by law. And the country is also linked by the world’s most perfect mass transit system that every single person uses every day, so that any new pathogen can spread to the entire country instantaneously. You’d expect things to start going bad for that city pretty quickly.

    Well, we have about a zillion think tanks researching new and better forms of propaganda. And we have constitutionally protected freedom of speech. And we have the Internet. So we’re kind of screwed.”

  3. Yeah, love it. Brings to mind two things a) reading Jack Kornfields “The Wise Heart” at the moment, and the notion of spiritual pollution fits right in there and b) about twenty years ago (or more?) I bought a device that was supposed to fire off a massive string of codes enabling you to switch off any TV you could see – I bought it specifically for airports. It didn’t work, but I loved the idea. Maybe somebody has built a more up to date one…

  4. Pollution of the mind is a choice. Everyone has the ability to choose not to consume ideas thoughts and feelings. The need to censor is Always about controlling others and has nothing to do with protecting humanity. Try again.

  5. Gosh, it’s horrible that you had to endure the most important news of the century for seconds at a time as you walked through an airport.

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