In a discussion I was involved with a while ago on Facebook concerning the merits of free speech, I posited an idea that surprised me a little as it occurred to me. It's probably not an especially novel view - I'd imagine it's an argument libertarians would be fond of making - but I think it's worth expanding on and defending the thesis here.
Free speech is far more fundamental to a democracy than voting.
How can that be? Democracy is about the people exercising collective self-determination. The people express their will through votes, either directly on issues via referenda and the like, or indirectly via a layer of abstraction, namely electing representatives. (In fact there is more than one such layer in Australia's Westminster system, since the elected representatives themselves then go on to elect the cabinet and prime minister/premier that compose the core decisions makers of the executive government.)
A plethora of other rights ascribed to citizens are seen as critical to the modern idea of democracy - the right to impartial trial by jury, freedom to associate and peacefully assemble, and so on. Sometimes this is framed in terms of a trade-off, between more or less the Democratic and Republican ideals for which the two major American political parties are named - the collective right of the majority to make decisions about how society should be run, versus the individual rights of citizens to self-determination free from the interference of other parties, including the State.
Never mind that particular balancing act. Free speech is not just an important right for the individual person, it is a necessary precondition for the collective right embodied in voting to be meaningful.
Of course, nearly everyone accepts that you need free speech to have a proper democracy. My point goes beyond that, though. First, try and imagine a society in which there is free speech, but no multi-party democratic elections - a benevolent dictatorship of sorts. Not so hard to do, right? I can picture autocratic government that is perfectly tolerant of pro-democracy rallies, allows private citizens to own newspapers and publish editorials that advocate their own political views, etc. Of course, few if any such governments tend to exist in the real world, because inevitably open discussions of a government's failings (and in the long run, any government will have failings) result in sustained and coherent pressure for it to change, so real world dictators keep a tight reign on civil discourse, acutely aware of how critical it is to maintaining their grip on power. Still, its not an inconceivable arrangement.
Now, consider the converse scenario - a country where it is perfectly legal to form and join political parties, and genuine elections are held once every few years to decide which members of which parties should form the government. Except, its illegal for any of those parties to publicly disclose their criticisms of the existing leadership, or advocate their alternative views on policy.
On election day the ballot boxes aren't rigged, the candidates on the paper really are different, and no one is going to punish you in any way for voting for the opposition. You just have no access to any of the information needed to make an informed political decision.
Which society would you rather live in? Which society do you think would be better governed?
At least when you're free to criticise a regime, there's a chance, however small, that the leaders will take your ideas on board, even when you have no ability to hold them accountable. How much hope do you have though when at best you can vote arbitrarily for an unknowable alternative, on the random chance it will prove a better option?
To draw an analogy. The people of a nation without elections lose the right to self-determination; much akin to the individual case of a human slave, they possess no real control of their own joint destiny. But a slave at least retains one key freedom, that of conscience.
Whereas the people of a nation without free speech may be perfectly able to make collective decisions, subject only to the constraint that no ideas are exchanged amongst them in the process - like a person who is free to do whatever she wants, after merely having had certain beliefs forcibly prevented from circulating within her brain.