• Paul D. Wilke

Is the Marketplace of Ideas a Myth?

"We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom."

E.O. Wilson

It's easy to look around today and see a world where misinformation reigns supreme and truth languishes. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

In a free society, we have a competitive marketplace of ideas. Here, truths tend to prevail over falsehoods, and bad ideas die exposed to the searing light of reason. A wide range of opinions is permitted, even those that seem obviously wrong, since we often cannot easily identify false beliefs until they get debunked through public debate. And anyway, there's the off chance that today's obviously incorrect opinion is tomorrow's unquestioned fact. In these ways, even apparently bad ideas serve a purpose.

That's the theory, anyway, and it goes back a long way.

John Stuart Mill wrote eloquently about the importance of freedom of expression. According to Mill, "There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it." Mill's defense of free speech rested on the idea that only through the free and open exchange of ideas — good, bad, and otherwise — could an open society prosper.

Moreover, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes agreed, writing in a 1919 dissent that, "...that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

Even today, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, most people still basically agree with these two assessments on the value of free and open debate.

However, I want to take a look at that "abundant evidence to the contrary."

I recently came across something I found thought-provoking while reading Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works.

It goes something like this: The idea we live in a marketplace of ideas is a fallacy. We don’t anymore, not really, because that is predicated on the assumption that differing viewpoints actually do resolve themselves in reasoned, good-faith debate, with the best, most rational ideas winning out in the end. Unfortunately, our assumptions, even about basic things, are now often so irreconcilable that no reasonable debate is possible. Sometimes the best ideas do not win but go down in flames.

Or, to put it more bluntly, sometimes stupid wins.

Any observer of the current status quo can see Stanley's point. The ideals of Mill and Holmes are struggling mightily in the information-inundated world of the twenty-first century. Conspiracies thrive. Fake news, often propagated so egregiously and ironically by those who rant about it the most, becomes indiscernible from quality journalism that at least tries to ground itself in fact-based reporting.

What the hell happened?

First, for any reasoned debate to take place, the two sides must share a few presuppositions. For example, Jane may think that raising taxes on the rich will benefit society. At the same time, Bob believes lower taxes are better. Or maybe Jane thinks gun ownership promotes good citizenship, while Bob believes the opposite.

Here, the interlocutors share a common objective: creating and sustaining a better society as they see it. They may disagree passionately on how to make that happen. However, they are still operating within the same basic realm of facts. Mutual respect for the other's opinion can still exist here, and neither side sees the other as evil incarnate.

Suppose Bob and Jane want to implement their preferred policies. In that case, they must work within a common framework of established laws, the country's Constitution, and the actions of democratically-elected officials. Citizens like Bob and Jane implicitly accept these ground rules and agree to work within them. In theory, over time, the best ideas eventually win out, and society is better for it. Rational arguments get their day in the Sun, and irrational ones are banished into the darkness, all thanks to the marketplace of ideas.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

So far, so good, right?

What happens when the basic epistemology between the two beliefs is irreconcilable? Well, then things get interesting.

For example, perhaps Bob believes that Bill Gates is part of a shadowy global cabal of billionaire elites who concocted the COVID pandemic as part of a master plan to use mass vaccinations to install tracking chips that could later be activated by 5G networks. He also believes global elites and Hollywood celebrities are pedophiles who enslave children to blood harvest their adrenochrome.

Or something like that.


Perhaps Jane thinks this is a ridiculous conspiracy theory dreamed up by those who spend too much time online. 

Where is the common framework they can both agree on? Where do Bob and Jane even begin to have a rational discussion about how best to deal with the COVID pandemic when Bob's position is so clearly irrational?

These two interpretations of reality are so far apart that any productive conversation is difficult to have. The conspiracy theorist eschews reality in favor of an ever-more fantastical interpretation of events. Facts are selectively applied to support the conspiracy narrative, and anything contradicting is dismissed out of hand. For a person who does not buy into the narrative, this is hard to understand.

Conspiratorial interpretations of current events are not outliers. According to a Pew Survey, a solid quarter of respondents believe that COVID was planned as part of some larger conspiracy.

So, I ask, how is that marketplace of ideas working out?

Not as well as we'd like, at least if the goal is for better ideas to win out over inferior ones. The marketplace of ideas has its advantages. The dramatic shift in public opinion over the last ten years on LGB rights is an excellent example of the marketplace of ideas working well. Inclusive arguments defeated arguments for the previous less inclusive status quo. So, society changed for the better.

But it has its drawbacks as well. Remember, sometimes stupid wins. Everyone’s ideas get equal play and everyone has a platform to express them, no matter how divorced from reality. Expertise is often drowned out by smooth-talking bullshitters.

Stanley argues that we’re so saturated with information that we can no longer decipher fact from fiction, making us vulnerable to bad actors who leverage disorientation to sow confusion (Stanley 69–73).

Bombarded by so many sources that seem credible, people tend to grasp onto anything that seems kinda-sorta reasonable to their pre-conceived worldviews, even if that means hopping on the crazy train to Conspiracy Town. That, or else they tune out entirely, retreating into the comfortable oblivion of distracting social media narcissism.

Stanley writes, “What happens when conspiracy theories become the coin of politics, and mainstream media and educational institutions are discredited, is that citizens no longer have a common reality that can serve as a background for democratic deliberation. What happens in such cases, as we see across the world, is that citizens look to politics for tribal identification, for addressing personal grievances, and for entertainment” (71).

All of this is fertile soil for what he calls ‘fascist politics.’

Fascist politics…seeks to undermine trust in the press and universities” (71).

And, “Fascist politics seeks to destroy the relations of mutual respect between citizens that are the foundation of a healthy liberal democracy, replacing them ultimately with trust in one figure alone, the leader” (71).

When this kind of politics pervades the discourse, a Great Leader’s words become more trusted than the media’s. Universities are seen by many as incubators for Marxist indoctrination instead of bastions of free and open debate. Stanley makes the great point that, for all the negative coverage about academic intolerance in recent years, some of it justified, universities are still much freer and open than the workplace (41).

If you disagree, go to your job next week and take a stand on some controversial issue, just do or say something that publicly conflicts with your employer’s image. Then tell me how that goes before you head down to the unemployment office.

In reality, though, there is so much contradictory information that we end up unable to process it all. Most of us don’t have time to fact-check everything we read or watch, so we end up taking a lot of it on faith or based on the source's perceived credibility. What people choose to believe is less a matter of any critical analysis of the evidence, and more a reflection of pre-existing values and beliefs.

This transforms the classic “marketplace of ideas” into a “marketplace of opinions,” a place where we can all shop for custom-curated realities that let us live comfortably numb in communities of shared illusions. Truth then is less important than the identity that an opinion confers upon us. It’s a fantasy world where opinions are as valid as people believe them to be. Yet, it’s a fragile world allergic to challenge.

Debate, the key to a functioning marketplace of ideas, becomes frowned upon in polite society. The untouchable sanctity of one's opinion, no matter how divorced from reality, is everything. Tell me, how comfortable are you sticking up for what you believe? Are you confident? Or not? Or do you hide behind social etiquette, thus protecting your opinions from any direct challenge?

Thus, for example, I can hold laughably bad ideas and still easily avoid the discomfort of having them exposed in open debate. I can escape into echo chambers where I hear only my side articulated, and the other side caricatured.

Others who think like me will cheer me on. Yes, that marketplace of ideas is still out there, but I dare not step into it and put my beliefs to the test. And so deeply flawed beliefs survive any challenge by never actually being challenged.

To me, people unwilling to challenge dearly held beliefs are like medieval knights who always polish their armor without ever testing it in battle. The armor ends up as little more than a fashion accessory.

Oh, but see how it shines!”

Every time we joke about the truism that no one ever wins an argument online, we are tacitly conceding defeat to those who would spin falsehoods as truth. Like a virus, this plague of falsity can spread until it eventually seeps into the real world.

If there is any silver lining, it’s that it doesn't have to be this way. We get to choose how we engage the world intellectually. Mill and Holmes were on to something, even if technology has dramatically altered the equation. Reason is not destined to win every argument against ignorance. No, it needs champions willing to defend it, now more than ever.

Quite often, there are actual, unequivocal facts. Either Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies are spreading COVID to control the world, or not. Either QAnon is speaking the truth, or not. Either climate change is a hoax, or not. Either vaccines are dangerous, or not.

These genuinely are either/or issues. We should not give in to the temptation of just scrolling down every time we come across bad ideas. These ideas left unchecked metastasize, and eventually make their way into the halls of power. Then, as we have seen, all bets are off.

Yes, there are also ambiguities and things we don’t know and never will. But we should not fall into the trap of believing that all facts are inherently relative, open to endless interpretations by clever sophists and gullible fools alike. While it may seem Quixotic, we need to keep fighting against ignorance and conspiracy, even if it feels like a losing battle at times.

Care enough to believe in something beyond yourself, then have the courage to defend it. And if your nicely polished armor gets bashed to bits, be grateful.

And then, my friends, choose again.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women. Penguin Books, 2006.

Stanley, Jason —How Fascism Works, 2018.

Some Conspiracy Theories Hostile