Negative externalities and the marketplace of ideas

Sep 17, 2006

Another day, another charge of “liberal hypocrisy.” This time, Bill Thornton points out the odious double-standards of those who sought to get ABC to alter or pull “The Path to 9/11”.

Start with the total silence of the usual civil liberties suspects to say a word about this attempt at stifling someone’s First Amendment right to free speech. Where are the ACLU and its usual clichés about the “chilling effects” of such attempts? Where are all the blowhard academics who noisily defended the noxious Ward Churchill? Where are all the quotes from John Stuart Mill usually trotted out on these occasions?

I could wade through the usual, and obvious, points: the First Amendment concerns government restrictions on speech, those “blowhard academics” who defended Ward Churchill presumably defended his right to express himself without retribution from the institution that granted him tenure, and so on and so forth. But the really fascinating thing here is Thornton’s reference to Mill.

Mill does, in fact, argue (IIRC) that individuals should avoid suppressing the speech of others. His arguments are not limited, as is the Constitution, to government “chilling effects.” And yet something smells here. After all, if ABC was about to present a portrayal of the history of US counter-terrorism efforts that suffered from inaccuracies, then why isn’t the duty of those seeking truth to try to get the documentary altered or pulled?

Anyway, most of the rest of the post concerns fairly standard examples of “hypocrisy” that range from the laughable to the genuinely debatable, the rather obvious point that works of fiction tend to be fictional, and some sound advice to conservatives about their own failures in the last few decades of counter-terrorism.

Thornton’s self-quotation deserves some commentary, however:

Conservatives . . . usually favor a free market of ideas; their protests focus on the unfair domination of the market by one group that controls an institution. Content is not the issue, for no matter how bad or pernicious the idea, the more people who encounter it, the more its lack of merit will become apparent. A free raucous debate will generally allow the people to sort out treasures from trash; and if some trash should prevail, the same process will eventually expose its trashiness. We need to monitor the various institutions that promote ideas, of course, but for fairness, not for content. If all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard without fear of reprisal or coercion, then the market and the people who frequent it will do the rest.

Two comments:

1. Thornton’s unabashed Millisianism is almost certainly inconsistent with any recognizable form of “conservativism.” One need only remember Mill’s “harm principle” and his claim about allowing “experiments in living.” If all beliefs and social conventions are to be subjected to human reason, then a whole host of very non-conservative policy positions follow.

2. What if the market is cartelized, as it is in our current media structure? What if there is, in fact, no “fairness doctrine” to provide “all voices an equal opportunity to be heard”? The metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” depends, at the least, on the proposition that consumption and distribution of ideas (and this is a pretty terrible metaphor, come to think of it) approximates a perfectly competitive environment with few barriers to entry or exit. If such a market does not exist, then how should we approach the question of limiting the sway of disinformation?

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.