Has the Marketplace of Ideas Failed, or Just the Metaphor?

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.



  1. “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.”

    I think this touches on a point that I tried to make to Woozle on another thread last week. A big part of the problem as I see it for Some Liberals is that they just assume that everyone should be able to see the brilliance of their ideas and it’s sort of beneath them to have to try and explain it better. Woozle went so far as to call Republicans liars and deliberate deceivers for disagreeing with liberal policy proposals. This completely discounts the notion that maybe, just maybe, we simply disagree and it’s not from a lack of intelligence but because of a completely different viewpoint about the way our country works.

    You are elluding to the same idea above i.e ‘repetition of a statement, no matter how erroneous, eventually makes it accepted by the public’. Kudos for also accurately describing the corollary which is that the idea must be ‘coherent’.

    1. Coherent refers to the message, not the idea :)

      1. The public seems to disagree with you.

      2. The public also disagrees with me on the age of the earth. I’ve gotten used to it.

        Also, I didn’t take you for a Beck fan!

        1. But you have to understand that on certain ideals – such as the wisdom of the HCR law – the issue is so complicated and has so many variables that it is folly to believe your side has all the answers. Unless of course you subscribe to the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ for the electorate, which would sort of be in line with standard liberal thought.

        2. That’s more a basic theory of republican governance, that the electorate delegates to specialized representatives. But sure.

          Nor do I think we have all the answers. We do, though, happen to have the only answers that’ve been put on the table.

          1. We don’t have to re-hash HCR here but I think you know there have been plenty of ‘answers’ put on the table…liberals just think theirs are better.

            And ‘lousy answers’ are not necessarily better than ‘no answers’.

          2. Sure, there are answers. But any bills? Any attempt to push them? Still? As I see it, committees have been directed to draw up substitute bills. A striking illustration of the fact that Republicans won the House and had no plan what to do with it.

            1. Getting rid of the bad is a priority over anything else. HCR is actively doing bad things RIGHT NOW. Priorities…

              1. Actively bad things such as?

              2. Haha this should be fun.

                1. I already covered some of this ground last week.


                  Just off the top of my head there are problems with the rules surrounds FSAs, the 1099 provision needs to be repealed, and of course there’s the constituionality of the insurance mandate which is still going through the courts.

                  1. And yet where do Democrats get credit for the 1/2 to 2/3rds of the Law’s sections/ideas having been Republican ideas just a single Congress before? Republicans run around for years saying that this, this, and this are what we need to do to put our financial house in order for medical costs in order; democrats buy off on those ideas to get the law passed, Republicans vote against it anyway and then message that it kills jobs. SO to bring it all together, its not about the idea, its about the message, and more importantly who delibers the message. Meaning Democrats lack of pithy sound bites to summarize what you admit are complex and nuanced issues is a problem, and likewise Republicans use exclusively of misleading soundbites only is also a problem.

                    1. As I think I’ve mentioned before – a lot of it probably has to do with motivations. Top-level emocrats have been pretty clear on their interest in single-payer. So despite the fact that they may actually be advocating some previously-held Republican positions, no one believes they are going to stop there. So then this becomes a holding action.

  2. I do think we give too much credence to Beck’s power. My understanding is that his ratings indicate a viewership of a million or so.

    That’s a lot, but in a nation of 300 million, perhaps not as significant as we think.

    1. But relative to others?

      1. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I find it hard to believe that Beck’s audience is anything but the true believers.

  3. As a heads up, sin(x)/x doesn’t work like that, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinc

  4. […] Has the Marketplace of Ideas Failed, or Just the Metaphor? […]

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