Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas

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In “The ‘Marketplace’ of Ideas” I observe that

[u]nlike true markets, where competition usually eliminates sellers whose products and services are found wanting, the competition of ideas often leads to the broad acceptance of superstitions, crackpot notions, and plausible but mistaken theories. These often find their way into government policy, where they are imposed on citizens and taxpayers for the psychic benefit of politicians and bureaucrats and the monetary benefit of their cronies.

The “marketplace” of ideas is replete with vendors who are crackpots, charlatans, and petty tyrants. They run rampant in the media, academia, and government.

Caveat emptor.

Theodore Dalrymple reminds us just how easily crackpot ideas gain wide acceptance:

Rather against my better judgment, and that of my wife, I allowed myself to be persuaded to take part recently in a debate, or public conversation, about prostitution….

The two women on the panel with me took different views of the matter, though both were somewhat opposed to me. The question supposedly before us was, fortunately, soon forgotten. The first of the women was a representative of a prostitutes’ organised pressure group, and herself a prostitute, and the second a sociologist….

The spokeswoman for the prostitutes of England … believed that prostitution was an evil brought about by the current economic dispensation. Women, many of them single mothers, had no choice but to prostitute themselves. They could earn much more by prostitution than in respectable jobs; increasing poverty and desperation drove them to it.

I asked her whether she was saying that all women in a certain situation were prostitutes, having no choice in the matter: in which case there would surely be millions more than there are?…

She replied that in an ideal world there would be no prostitution, but that so long as many people had to do jobs at low pay in occupations that they detested, prostitution was a reasonable choice. (The fact that prostitution in her opinion was undesirable suggested that she did not agree with the sociologist that it was a job like any other, that there was something intrinsically wrong or degrading about it.)

What she was really asking for, then, was a world in which everyone did a job, other than for reasons of pay, that he or she found agreeable and conformable to their wishes. This was a kind of Marxist Utopia, as expressed in The German Ideology [by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels], in which

nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

I said that what the prostitute wanted, in effect, was the abolition of both the division of labour and the labour market. To my surprise, a portion of the audience, far from taking this as absurd, was extremely enthusiastic about it. They wanted (at least in theory) the abolition of the division of labour and the labour market. Furthermore, as members of the bourgeoisie themselves, in its intellectual branch, they benefited from precisely what they wanted to abolish.

This suggested to me what in fact I had long suspected, namely that victories in the field of social, economic and philosophical thought are never final, but that the battles have to be fought over and over again, no matter what experiences Mankind has gone through in the meantime.

And so it is that ideas which are not only preposterous but also anti-libertarian take root and destroy liberty. As I have said:

Liberty is lost when the law allows “freedom of speech, and of the press” to undermine the civil and state institutions that enable liberty.

The “Marketplace” of Ideas

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Markets are physical or virtual places in which individuals and firms buy and sell products and services, sometimes competing directly and always indirectly. (Even a so-called monopolist must compete for the consumer’s dollar.) A market transaction occurs when a buyer gives a seller something of value in exchange for a product or service.

Some commenters have suggested that there’s no marketplace of ideas. They’re right, insofar as there’s no exchange taking place — ideas for money or something else of value. But there are competitions among ideas. Those competitions involve active vendors of ideas (e.g., religious, political, scientific), who vie for adherents, even though the vendors may receive no payment from their adherents.

Unlike true markets, where competition usually eliminates sellers whose products and services are found wanting, the competition of ideas often leads to the broad acceptance of superstitions, crackpot notions, and plausible but mistaken theories. These often find their way into government policy, where they are imposed on citizens and taxpayers for the psychic benefit of politicians and bureaucrats and the monetary benefit of their cronies.

The “marketplace” of ideas is replete with vendors who are crackpots, charlatans, and petty tyrants. They run rampant in the media, academia, and government.

Caveat emptor.