Some natural law must be operating here of which I am unaware. On many occasions I have written and posted lengthy discussions running to several thousands of words which have occasioned at most a languid comment or two. Two days ago I posted thirty-three words with an embedded link, thereby provoking one of the longest and most interesting threads of comment in the history of this blog. Perhaps if I just posted “So?” the comments space would overflow.
Out of the wealth of ideas finding expression in those comments, let me single out just one, the free marketplace of ideas, for some discussion. The metaphor of a free market of ideas raises all manner of problems, and it might be fun to explore some of them for a bit. The notion underlying the metaphor is of course that in a real marketplace, where goods and services are offered for sale, consumers, who are presumed to be excellent judges of their own pleasures and pains, very quickly learn which commodities yield a pleasure commensurate with their price and which do not. Consumers’ unconstrained purchasing choices, which when aggregated with the choices of others constitute some level of effective demand, determine the prices at which the commodities sell, and hence the profits made by their producers. Commodities sought by consumers establish themselves in the market; those shunned are unprofitable and are soon withdrawn.
By analogy, we are asked to believe, opinions compete for acceptance in the way that goods and services compete for buyers. Hence the familiar expression, “I’ll buy that,” meaning “I will accept that as true.” Good ideas compete with bad ideas, with the good ideas gaining wider and wider acceptance as the bad ideas, like Betamax, are driven from the intellectual marketplace.
There are so many things wrong with this analogy that it is truly difficult to understand why it has gained such currency [itself an interesting metaphor, by the way.] Consideration of a proposition is nothing like consumption of a commodity, and the conclusion that the proposition is true is nothing like the experience that the commodity yields pleasure [although a deep exploration of the psychological links between the oral incorporation of food and the intellectual acceptance of an idea might actually be interesting.]
Let me focus on just one problem. In the modern world, consumers are presented with a completely unmanageable multiplicity of commodities whose safety, purity, and reliability it is beyond their ability to assess. No one [save Rand Paul perhaps] seriously claims that the invisible hand of the free market can be relied on quickly, and with acceptable safety, to weed out faulty or poisonous products by the unfettered workings of competition. Hence we rely on the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to maintain product safety and purity standards enforceable by law.
If one takes the metaphor of the free marketplace of ideas seriously, the clear implication is that the government ought to institute a Facts and Theories Administration, or FTA, whose responsibility it would be to regulate the dissemination of ideas, enforcing standards of evidentiary solidity and conceptual purity to protect us from dangerous ideas that are potentially fatal to our intellectual well-being.
Hmm. That is not exactly what the folks have in mind who push the notion of the free market of ideas.
I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of expression, because long experience has taught me that in this society, it is more than likely going to be my ideas that are squelched, my voice silenced, when limits are placed on what can be said in the public sphere. But what would I say in the socialist society of my dreams? Ah well, that is a post for another day.