Andrew Sullivan (through co-bloggers) flags a question that must occur to any witness of the past two years:
Justice Holmes said a long time ago that the best test of the truth is its ability to get accepted in the marketplace of ideas. Glenn Beck has gotten very far in the marketplace of ideas. If he’s so wrong, where is the speech on the other side showing him to be wrong?
The full quote, by the way:
The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.
U.S. v. Abrams, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). So why are we losing in the marketplace?
It strikes me that we have two answers to this question. The first, to concede that we’re not doing enough to push back against those who we (rightly) view as extremists, but (perhaps unwisely) ignore. The second, that some failure in the marketplace functions to distort the voices of some over others, preventing the marketplace from being able to accurately gauge and evaluate the claims of all players.
In truth, it’s probably a little from Column A, a little from Column B. True, unlike Republicans (e.g.), Democrats and the institutional left seem particularly inept at forming a coherent and consistent message, the kind capable of infinite repetition by similarly aligned operatives, until it achieves dominance in the news cycle. But if the marketplace is a perfect mediator of ideas, this strategy shouldn’t work in the first place.
Justice Holmes’ metaphor was never perfect. Critically, it fails to account for the unusual power (and frequency of occurrence) of demagogues, and assumes an absence of meaningful transaction costs for new participants (barriers to entry). But since 1919, despite lower barriers to entry for day-to-day participants, like me and you, the barrier for meaningful entry is vastly larger. The individual market power of larger speakers suffices to exclude any competition, and relegate new ideas to the fringe. In the aggregate, such speakers may together, collusively or otherwise, frame the national narrative, to the exclusion of third-way options. Thus, Glenn Beck may scream at Keith Olbermann, but CSPAN remains unwatched, and the marketplace has failed.
Despite this failure, the marketplace metaphor allows us to identify the problem, and the impossibility of solution. As we trust free speech to lead to truth, we trust capital markets to generate innovation and prosperity. But we long ago recognized the possibility of failure in the capital markets, and addressed it with laws preventing fraud (the Securities and Exchange Acts) and monopolization (the Sherman and Clayton Acts). The marketplace of ideas suffers from similar problems, but admits of fewer solutions. Constitutional law expressly forbids the state from policing fraud in public discourse, and from preventing monopolies of ideas, unless they separately implicate antitrust law. We must therefore rely on competition and ingenuity alone to keep the marketplace running — a risky proposition indeed, and one that justifies anger against walking, breathing market failures like Glenn Beck, a veritable Standard Oil of the mind.
Alternately, although the marketplace metaphor may guide us to useful values, it may not be a good way to evaluate instant claims to truth, because it explicitly takes the long view. The marketplace may lead to truth, but a sampling of it at any given point in time will represent an incremental step that, depending on the phase of the discourse, may be closer to truth or to error. Consider a dampening sine wave (right), like y=sin(x)/x. The equation resolves at a value infinitely close to zero (truth), but at any given point, the value of the equation, and its first derivative, may point away from zero. So too with public speech. We simply happen to find ourselves at a peak of the equation, or rather, a valley.