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.

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