Research shows free speech benefits the poor the most

Jun 13, 2023

Recently published research (by Motu and VUW) analyses the types of people who benefit most from freedom of speech. The research found people with more resources place greater priority on freedom of speech. However, people with fewer resources (i.e. lower incomes or education levels) actually benefit the most from free speech. The results support the hypothesis that free speech empowers those with fewer resources in society compared to those with greater resources.


It has been covered by  Jonathan Ayling: Who really benefits from free speech? - NZ Herald and here Free speech vital for the poor.


Arthur Grimes also wrote a piece for The Conversation.


The analysis includes 300,000 individuals from more than 90 countries over a 40-year period.


The two results are not incompatible: people with fewer resources may need to prioritise basic needs more than ‘luxuries’ such as free speech but, being in marginalised populations, they may still benefit most from having freedom of expression.


Free speech acts as a luxury good when individuals are asked to rank it alongside other factors that may affect their wellbeing. Just because poorer people prioritise more immediate needs does not, however, mean that they benefit less from free speech. Free speech offers the poor and the marginalized a greater opportunity to voice their concerns publicly and to influence decisions. While it is not their top priority when making ends meet, they gain greater benefit from having free speech than more prosperous groups.


We conclude that even though survey evidence for stated preferences indicates that free speech is a luxury good, regimes which increase freedom of speech (on average) simultaneously raise the subjective wellbeing of more marginalised members of society relative to those with greater resources.


The researchers analysed if people value free speech differently relative to others with different income or education levels in their country.  They also analyse how people rank the importance of free speech relative to a list of other possible priorities (choices include: protecting freedom of speech, giving people more say in important government decisions, fighting rising prices, and maintaining order in the nation.)


Finally, the research analyses whose (self-rated) wellbeing is enhanced most by having freedom of speech in their country. The researchers tested if free speech is valued more highly by high-income earners and the well-educated, or by those with fewer resources.


Related findings from the research include:

  • People who say they value free speech benefit from living in countries with free speech.
  • Preferences towards free speech vary according to population characteristics, in addition to income and education levels. Other groups more likely to prioritise free speech include the young, students, non-religious people and those on the left of the political spectrum. Preferences also reflect country circumstances, with people in the ‘West’ being more supportive of free speech than people in other regions of the world.


The analysis uses wellbeing and other individual data from the World Values Survey and the Latino Barometer survey, plus data covering country-level free speech and human rights sourced from two independently compiled databases (CIRIGHTS and VDEM). Many of the countries in the surveys have had marked changes in their free speech levels over the study period.


The paper, “The Economics of Free Speech: Subjective Wellbeing and Empowerment of Marginalized Citizens” published in Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, is freely available at: