Three critiques of the marketplace of ideas

Alternative title: A brief survey of the anti-market metaphor literature

Note: This is my 14th blog post in a multi-part series on conspiracy theories

Is there a “marketplace of ideas”, and if so, does this market really work? In my previous two posts I have mentioned how many legal scholars and public intellectuals have rejected the “marketplace of ideas” model. In the context of conspiracy theories, one can see why. After all, if truth is supposed to prevail whenever ideas are shared freely and openly, why are bogus conspiracy theories so popular? Broadly speaking, now that I have surveyed the “anti-market” literature, we can identify three main reasons why some scholars/intellectuals reject the market metaphor:

1. Ideas are not goods.

Although Ronald Coase (1974), an economist, famously concluded that no fundamental difference exists between the “market for goods” and the “market for ideas,” other scholars, by contrast, have rejected the analogy between markets and ideas. Alvin Goldman and James Cox (1996, p. 26), for example, conclude that the marketplace analogy is inapt in the domain of speech because “it is really questionable whether messages are goods or products at all,” while Robert Sparrow and Robert Gooding (2001, p. 48) concur with Goldman & Cox (1996) that “ideas are not commodities of the sort ordinarily bought and sold in markets” and propose an alternative metaphor (pp. 54-55): “the garden of ideas.” Similarly, Brazeal (2011, p. 2) emphasizes “structural dissimilarities between a market in more traditional goods and a market in ideas.”

2. Specific types of speech.

Some scholars/intellectuals have rejected the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor with respect to specific types of speech, such as hate speech and racist speech. David Shih (2017), for example, citing the landmark work of Richard Delgado and Jane Stefancic (1992), focuses on hate speech and racist speech and concludes that the marketplace of ideas “fails” because “we cannot make objective choices about racism.” Why not? Because, according to Delgado & Stefancic (1992, p. 1278, citing Bell, 1987), “racism is woven into the warp and woof of the way we see and organize the world ….” But if this were the case, then everyone must be irredeemably racist, and no amount of public policy reforms could alter their pessimistic conclusion. Alas, Shih, Delgado, and Stefancic’s critique of the market metaphor is self-refuting.

3. Specific types of information environments.

Yet others reject the market metaphor with respect to specific types of “information environments.” Claudio Lombardi (2019), for example, explains how the marketplace of ideas is distorted by the advertising revenue business models of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. These platforms treat news as a “product” and readers as “consumers” and distort the marketplace of ideas by lumping reliable sources of news together with fake news. According to Lombardi (2019, p. 201), “Algorithms such as those used by Facebook and Twitter are crafted … to show online content without selecting for the credibility of the source. The watchword is instead the ‘effectiveness’ of a post in generating traffic–a loophole that populist movements have used very effectively.” Lombardi (ibid., pp. 202-203) also falls into the ad hominem trap: “But just as in any other market, trade in ideas may be subject to distortion due to … bounded rationality and cognitive limitations.”

For my part, I am not persuaded by any of these criticisms. Aside from falling into the ad hominem trap, Lombardi’s analysis is already outdated, while Shih’s pessimistic analysis is empirically false. If you don’t believe me, ask “Karen.” Today, when someone is caught on video making a racist statement, they are often “cancelled” and subject to strong censure from many quarters. In any case, in my next post I will propose a new way of dealing with fake news and conspiracy theories: a futures market in fake news or “conspiracy theory prediction market.”

Cartoon credit: Kevin Siers, via politicalcartoons.com

Works Cited

Bell, Derrick A. 1987. And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. Basic Books.

Brazeal, Gregory. 2011. How much does a belief cost? Revisiting the marketplace of ideas. Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, 21(1), pp. 1–46.

Coase, Ronald H. 1974. The market for goods and the market for ideas. American Economic Review, 64(2): pp. 384–391.

Delgado, Richard, and Jane Stefancic. 1992. Images of the outsider in American law and culture: can free expression remedy systemic social ills. Cornell Law Review, 77(6), pp. 1258–1297.

Goldman, Alvin I., and James C. Cox. 1996. Speech, truth, and the free market for ideas. Legal Theory, 2 (1), pp. 1–32.

Lombardi, Claudio. 2019. The illusion of a “marketplace of ideas” and the right to truth. American Affairs, Spring 2019, pp. 198–212.

Shih, David. 2017. Hate speech and the misnomer of “the marketplace of ideas.” NPR (May 3, 2017), available at https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/05/03/483264173/hate-speech-and-the-misnomer-of-the-marketplace-of-ideas. [permaCC]

Sparrow, Robert, and Robert Goodin. 2001. The competition of ideas: market or garden? Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 4(2), pp. 45–58.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Three critiques of the marketplace of ideas

  1. PK says:

    Dear Mr. Guerra-Pujol, I enjoyed your series on conspiracy theory and noticed that you have not mentioned network effects that are, for example, mentioned in this book: http://formula.barabasi.com/ This is just a popular example, because the is a large literature on this.

    Also there are great LARP models of QAnon that are worthy of mention. https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5

    I am curious about your thoughts on this. For a source of raw, but relatively serious, material on conpsiracy theory I can point you to the Fortean Times forum: https://forums.forteana.org/index.php?forums/conspiracy.15/

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