Ideologies in the Marketplace of Ideas

The “marketplace of ideologies” is neither new nor quite disastrous

In a post over at Concurring Opinions, Ronald K.L. Collins laments what he regards as the rise, in the place of the good old marketplace of ideas, of a “marketplace of ideologies.” Prof. Collins writes that in this new marketplace, ideas, facts, “the constitutional process of governing,” and “the noble pursuit of truth” itself are only valued if and insofar as they can put to one’s favoured ideological use; otherwise they are dispensed with. Prof. Collins quotes a number of thinkers, from John Milton to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Holmes, Douglas, and Brennan, who wrote about truth prevailing over falsehood in the contest of ideas. His “fear” however is that “[t]he idea of our faith in ideas has passed,” because

[d]ogmatism is ideology’s calling card. Where ideology reigns supreme, an open mind poses a clear and present danger to its stability. There is no trade in ideas with ideologues, there is only the demand that all opposing views surrender to the preferred creed.

The dangers of dogmatism are real, and I hope that people such as professor Collins, or the bright and brave minds behind the Heterodox Academy project, do not give up the fight against orthodoxies, whether enforced by the state, by social justice warriors, or by anyone else. But I think that prof. Collins overstates both the novelty of the problem he decries and its extent.

Skepticism about the ability of truth to prevail over or even to hold its own against falsehood is an old idea, and one that was expressed not only by various censors, but also by people whose credentials as independent thinkers are quite beyond question. Fred Shapiro has pointed out, at Freakonomics, that the idea behind the well-known quip about a lie getting halfway around the world before truth can gets its shoes ― or its pants ― on, usually attributed to Mark Twain (in the shoes version) or Winston Churchill (the pants one), has been traced as far back as Jonathan Swift, in 1710. And then there is Edward Gibbon’s point, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that while it may be tempting to think that Christianity spread and prevailed because of its truth, “truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world,” so that additional inquiry into the reasons for Christianity’s success is warranted.

More recently Bryan Caplan has pointed out in a post at EconLog that “[t]ruth doesn’t largely win out in a well-functioning market for ideas, because consumers primarily seek not truth, but comfort and entertainment” (emphasis prof. Caplan’s). The problem that prof. Collins is describing, then, is not that the marketplace of ideas has failed or been closed down in favour of the marketplace of ideologies, but that it is working about as well as it ever has. As for the lofty quotations prof. Collins invokes as evidence for the proposition that things used to be different, they show at most that some people might have thought that the consumers in the marketplace of ideas had other preferences ― not that this belief was correct.

Was it? I see no reason to think so. It might seem that ideological dogmas are pervasive now (especially in the United States), but what of the earlier dogmas of religion or simply of received wisdom and “common sense”? Were not those who dared go against these orthodoxies shunned, criticized, and sometimes murdered? Did people not compromise their search for the truth to avoid coming to uncomfortable conclusions? It may be that things are less different now than we tend to suppose, but I’m not even sure of that, and see little reason to think that they are worse. More likely, what is the case is that ideological influences are more visible than usual, not that they are stronger. As I have argued in the context of the comparison between Canadian and American courts, the fact that the influence of an orthodoxy is only really obvious when it is opposed by a countervailing orthodoxy does not mean that no orthodoxy is at work at other times.

Besides an absence of evidence to the contrary, there is another good reason to think that ideology was always a part of the marketplace of ideas ― not an alternative to it. Ideologies are a sort of appellation for ideas. Associating an idea with an ideology makes it possible to guess where the idea comes from, who its likely supporters and opponents are, what sort of consequences it might lead to, and so on, in more or less the manner in which knowing that a wine is a champagne or a rioja tells us where it comes from and what it might taste like. Of course, there is no central authority certifying an idea as liberal or conservative in the way wines are certified to earn their appellations ― though such authorities did not always exist for wines either. And, partly for that reason, the guesses we might make based on ideological labels are likely to be less accurate than those based on wine appellations. That indeed is one problem with ideologies. The bigger problem, though, is that ideas that would be recognized as rubbish if considered on their own merits can get a free pass as part of some ideological scheme whose adherents will uncritically accept them ― in the way that sparkling plonk might be able to command a premium price by virtue of being a champagne. Conversely, ideas that deserve consideration may be rejected out of hand by people who reflexively oppose their ideological appellation, just as one might refuse to drink perfectly good wine simply because it does not carry some label deemed necessary. These problems are serious, of course, but they are not, strictly speaking, caused by ideologies or appellations ― they are caused by closed minds, and closed minds would cause problems even if ideologies gave up their role to the old orthodoxies of religion and common sense.

“Things are merely just as horrible as they always were, not worse” is not a terribly inspirational thing to say. So here is something that might be a bit more hopeful. We can and should act as if the idea that truth prevails over falsehood were true regardless of whether we believe that it is, and perhaps even though we have reason to think that it is not. That’s what we do, after all, with human dignity or inalienable human rights. These ideas may not be true, but they are comforting and our life is more fun with them. That’s why we can hope that, despite everything, they will prevail.

Ideas of the Marketplace II

What we can learn from thinking about the marketplace of ideas as a market

In a very interesting post over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan considers what he describes as the “dogmatic libertarian” claim that all markets work well, as it is applies ― or, rather, doesn’t apply ― to the marketplace of ideas. The marketplace seems to reject this claim, which suggests that it cannot be true. Prof. Caplan agrees that it is not, and makes two further observations. In reverse order, they are that “[t]ruth doesn’t largely win out in a well-functioning market for ideas, because consumers primarily seek not truth, but comfort and entertainment” (emphasis prof. Caplan’s), and that while “[m]ost markets work well … the market for ideas doesn’t … [b]ecause ideas have massive externalities. … The market for ideas … works poorly because strangers bear almost all the cost of your irrationality.” I think that’s largely right, but want to add a couple of additional points regarding prof. Caplan’s second observation.

First, while it is often true that we do not internalize the costs of our irrationality, this is less true in some contexts than in others. Most obviously ― this a point that Ilya Somin makes in his discussions of political ignorance ― we do internalize a much greater share of the costs of our bad decisions, and also of the rewards of the good ones, when deciding for ourselves, in our private lives, than when we vote or, more generally, act in the political sphere. Even in our private lives, we pass on some of the costs of our irrationality to family, friends, and sometimes the broader society as well, but we do absorb a much more substantial fraction of these costs. This is perhaps a trite point, and prof. Caplan might only have been referring to the marketplace for political ideas (political in a very broad sense), but I think it’s worth spelling it out.

More interestingly, I think, it is also the case that, even in politics, there is a way in which people can be a made to internalize at least a small fraction of the costs of their bad decisions in the marketplace of ideas: democracy. This, I think, is what H.L. Mencken’s famous quip that “[d]emocracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” means. The theory is only partly true, because as prof. Caplan says, in the political sphere “strangers bear almost all the cost of your irrationality,” but self-government ensures that you bear at least a little fraction of the cost of your opinions and decisions. When you vote for a lousy politician, or convince others to do so, you increase ― albeit usually by very little ― your odds having to reap the consequences of the lousy policies that that politician will implement. By contrast, in a dictatorship, the few who decide typically bear even less of the cost of their views than the voters in a democracy, because they are even better able to pass these costs on to others, while those who do not (which is to say, almost everyone) are even freer to know nothing and believe everything, since their ignorance, credulity, and irrationality have no impact whatever on anything. If you think that voters and politicians are bad in democratic countries, just compare them to the people and the rulers in authoritarian ones. Once again, Churchill was quite right to say that while democracy is a bad system of government, others are even worse.

The second point I wanted to make might be too obvious for an economist like prof. Caplan to discuss, but bears repetition by a lawyer writing for non-economists. That the marketplace of ideas may be malfunctioning as a result of massive externalities does not justify intervention by the state in order to make people internalize these externalities or prevent them from occurring. Market failure may be real, but so is government failure ― and there are situations in which government failure is more severe than the market failure government intervention purports to correct. Indeed, this point is, I think, more widely accepted (albeit not necessarily in these terms) with respect to the marketplace of ideas than for just about any other market. Distrust of, and opposition to, censorship, in the face of widespread evidence of malfunctions in the marketplace of ideas reflects, at least in part, an understanding that giving the state the power to rectify these malfunctions would be disastrous, both because the state is a bad judge of ideas and because this power would be abused in various self-interested ways be the people entrusted with wielding it. Unfortunately, people often fail to transpose this understanding to their analysis of other markets. Yet there is no reason why they should. The marketplace of ideas is just not that special.

Thinking of the marketplace of ideas in economic terms ― assuming, in other words, that it is a marketplace more or less like any other ― is, I think a useful exercise. (I attempted it here already.) It both allows both to sharpen our understanding of the marketplace of ideas itself (and of the related markets, such as the one for votes), and can serve as a reminder of some broader truths about markets and regulations that we intuitively sense when thinking about the marketplace of ideas, but forget in other contexts.

The Idea of the Marketplace

Apologies for the lack of blogging for the past week. We had this minor disturbance of a hurricane, and then I went to a conference in Chicago to present my paper on federalism and judicial review.

My topic today is the highlight of that conference, a keynote address by Robert Post, Dean of the Yale Law School. Dean Post spoke about academic freedom, and how (American) courts struggle to understand it and integrate in the the First Amendment jurisprudence. Dean Post as expressed much the same ideas in a brief essay, “Discipline and Freedom in the Academy”, (2012) 65 Ark. L. Rev. 203 (which will, presumably, be available on the Review’s website in some not too distant future), and in a book he published this year (which I haven’t yet looked at). There is a lot of food for thought there, but I would like to focus on one specific claim.

One source of difficulty that courts have with figuring out the true meaning of academic freedom, says Dean Post, comes from the interference of the notion of the “marketplace of ideas.” It is a staple of the American free speech jurisprudence; and of course it sounds intuitively relevant to a discussion of universities, since they are in the ideas business. Unfortunately, this intuition is misguided, according to Dean Post. In the “Discipline and Freedom” paper, he writes that “[t]he marketplace of ideas is designed … to eliminate content discrimination. It is supposed to enshrine an equality in the field of ideas.” But there is, and can be, no such equality in academia, or in any setting that is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, especially of expertise, the institutionalized sort of knowledge universities are charged with producing. Academic disciplines recognize claims as true or false; arguments as valid or not. A university (as well as, say, a scientific journal) must be able to say that some ideas are brilliant and others rotten, and it does so all the time―when hiring a would-be professor, when granting him or her tenure, etc. Importing the notion of the marketplace of ideas into the academic setting contributes to the belief that academics are free to say whatever they please, but that’s nonsense. Once we understand that the purpose of universities is not to foster an equality of ideas but to generate expertise, we also understand, concludes Dean Post, that academic freedom is really the freedom of the academic profession to judge its members and their output by the standards of truth and validity it sets itself.

This is just a bare-bones sketch of one of the lines in Dean Post’s rich argument. I hope it is fair to him, even if it surely does not do it justice. Dean Post’s idea that universities, and the production of knowledge more generally, require discipline and judgment about what is true and valid, and what is not, seems obviously right to me. And I think Dean Post is right too that there is a danger in relying on the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to develop a jurisprudence of academic freedom. But the danger is not exactly the one he sees. It is not that the marketplace of ideas is an inapt metaphor for describing the production of knowledge, but that it is a complex one, and easily misunderstood. Dean Post, I am afraid, it guilty of misunderstanding it in two ways.

First, a marketplace isn’t a place of equality. If the market is free, then everyone is equal in the sense of being legally able (which is of course not to say capable, or inclined) to enter it as a buyer or a seller. But not every seller will be successful, because every seller competes against other sellers of the same or similar products. Some products fare well; others do not. If the market is free, it is the preferences of the buyers, rather than the decisions of the government, that determine who succeeds and who fails. The marketplace of ideas is no different. It is not a place of equality. Some ideas are accepted, others rejected. When we rely on the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas in discussing freedom of speech, we imply that this particular marketplace must remain a free one, in the sense that the preferences of the “buyers”―the readers, the listeners, etc.―determine which “products”―ideas―succeed, and which fail. The government cannot pick winners here, or erect barriers to entry, or even engage in much of the regulation that we consider acceptable in other markets.

Second, the market doesn’t consist just of individual sellers and buyers. In most markets, (most) sellers (and often buyers, but the demand side is less important here) are firms. And firms, as Ronald Coase pointed out in his brilliant paper on “The Nature of the Firm“, do not function internally according to the market principles of free competition at all. They are like islands of central planning, little command economies, even as their relationships with each other are structured according to market principles. The reason for this, Coase explains, is that on (relatively) small scales, command economies are actually more efficient than markets, because they avoid transaction costs. What about the marketplace of ideas then? Does it too have its “firms”―organizations which, internally, are not structured on free market principles? Arguably, Dean Post’s insight about universities not obeying marketplace of ideas principles is the equivalent of Coase’s insight about firms―universities are (one sort of) firms in the marketplace of ideas. (Others probably include the institutional press, and perhaps other producers of ideas). Internally, as Dean Post points out, universities or scientific journals are not marketplaces of ideas. But externally, they are producers on the great marketplace of ideas of our society. When, for example, I submit a paper to an academic journal, the journal evaluates it according non-marketplace criteria of truth and validity. But once it decides to publish it, it arrives on a market place of ideas, where it might have to compete against other papers in the same area, which have also passed the tests of truth and validity, and where its success or failure will be measured not by any institutional assessment, but by the interest of the readers and their willingness or not to accept my claims.

Now I’m not yet sure what, if anything, the takeaway from this is. I think that Dean Post’s key insight about the importance of institutional practices of assessment of truth and validity of scientific claims and arguments holds true whether we describe this assessment as taking place outside the marketplace of ideas altogether or within special structures, not organized on marketplace of ideas principles, which are nonetheless themselves part of the marketplace of ideas. My thinking here is still a prototype―I want to show it off, but am not yet ready to put it on the market.