Ideologies in the Marketplace of Ideas

The “marketplace of ideologies” is neither new nor quite disastrous

In a post over at Concurring Opinions, Ronald K.L. Collins laments what he regards as the rise, in the place of the good old marketplace of ideas, of a “marketplace of ideologies.” Prof. Collins writes that in this new marketplace, ideas, facts, “the constitutional process of governing,” and “the noble pursuit of truth” itself are only valued if and insofar as they can put to one’s favoured ideological use; otherwise they are dispensed with. Prof. Collins quotes a number of thinkers, from John Milton to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Holmes, Douglas, and Brennan, who wrote about truth prevailing over falsehood in the contest of ideas. His “fear” however is that “[t]he idea of our faith in ideas has passed,” because

[d]ogmatism is ideology’s calling card. Where ideology reigns supreme, an open mind poses a clear and present danger to its stability. There is no trade in ideas with ideologues, there is only the demand that all opposing views surrender to the preferred creed.

The dangers of dogmatism are real, and I hope that people such as professor Collins, or the bright and brave minds behind the Heterodox Academy project, do not give up the fight against orthodoxies, whether enforced by the state, by social justice warriors, or by anyone else. But I think that prof. Collins overstates both the novelty of the problem he decries and its extent.

Skepticism about the ability of truth to prevail over or even to hold its own against falsehood is an old idea, and one that was expressed not only by various censors, but also by people whose credentials as independent thinkers are quite beyond question. Fred Shapiro has pointed out, at Freakonomics, that the idea behind the well-known quip about a lie getting halfway around the world before truth can gets its shoes ― or its pants ― on, usually attributed to Mark Twain (in the shoes version) or Winston Churchill (the pants one), has been traced as far back as Jonathan Swift, in 1710. And then there is Edward Gibbon’s point, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that while it may be tempting to think that Christianity spread and prevailed because of its truth, “truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world,” so that additional inquiry into the reasons for Christianity’s success is warranted.

More recently Bryan Caplan has pointed out in a post at EconLog 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). The problem that prof. Collins is describing, then, is not that the marketplace of ideas has failed or been closed down in favour of the marketplace of ideologies, but that it is working about as well as it ever has. As for the lofty quotations prof. Collins invokes as evidence for the proposition that things used to be different, they show at most that some people might have thought that the consumers in the marketplace of ideas had other preferences ― not that this belief was correct.

Was it? I see no reason to think so. It might seem that ideological dogmas are pervasive now (especially in the United States), but what of the earlier dogmas of religion or simply of received wisdom and “common sense”? Were not those who dared go against these orthodoxies shunned, criticized, and sometimes murdered? Did people not compromise their search for the truth to avoid coming to uncomfortable conclusions? It may be that things are less different now than we tend to suppose, but I’m not even sure of that, and see little reason to think that they are worse. More likely, what is the case is that ideological influences are more visible than usual, not that they are stronger. As I have argued in the context of the comparison between Canadian and American courts, the fact that the influence of an orthodoxy is only really obvious when it is opposed by a countervailing orthodoxy does not mean that no orthodoxy is at work at other times.

Besides an absence of evidence to the contrary, there is another good reason to think that ideology was always a part of the marketplace of ideas ― not an alternative to it. Ideologies are a sort of appellation for ideas. Associating an idea with an ideology makes it possible to guess where the idea comes from, who its likely supporters and opponents are, what sort of consequences it might lead to, and so on, in more or less the manner in which knowing that a wine is a champagne or a rioja tells us where it comes from and what it might taste like. Of course, there is no central authority certifying an idea as liberal or conservative in the way wines are certified to earn their appellations ― though such authorities did not always exist for wines either. And, partly for that reason, the guesses we might make based on ideological labels are likely to be less accurate than those based on wine appellations. That indeed is one problem with ideologies. The bigger problem, though, is that ideas that would be recognized as rubbish if considered on their own merits can get a free pass as part of some ideological scheme whose adherents will uncritically accept them ― in the way that sparkling plonk might be able to command a premium price by virtue of being a champagne. Conversely, ideas that deserve consideration may be rejected out of hand by people who reflexively oppose their ideological appellation, just as one might refuse to drink perfectly good wine simply because it does not carry some label deemed necessary. These problems are serious, of course, but they are not, strictly speaking, caused by ideologies or appellations ― they are caused by closed minds, and closed minds would cause problems even if ideologies gave up their role to the old orthodoxies of religion and common sense.

“Things are merely just as horrible as they always were, not worse” is not a terribly inspirational thing to say. So here is something that might be a bit more hopeful. We can and should act as if the idea that truth prevails over falsehood were true regardless of whether we believe that it is, and perhaps even though we have reason to think that it is not. That’s what we do, after all, with human dignity or inalienable human rights. These ideas may not be true, but they are comforting and our life is more fun with them. That’s why we can hope that, despite everything, they will prevail.

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