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The Limits of Free Markets, Both Economic and Intellectual

Both in economics and speech, the market is a powerful metaphor.  Free economic markets are efficient, and produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people by the fair interplay of sellers and buyers.  The marketplace of ideas is supposed to produce truth, and maximize free inquiry of ideas through the competition or rival ideas.  Both marketplaces are supposed to support contrasting forms of individual freedom.  Except the truth is that neither work in practice compared to theory, fixing their externalities and preventing one from corrupting the other  is challenge and task of contemporary western politics.

The market is a metaphor of modern western politics.  Belief in the efficiency of economic free markets dates at least to Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations.  For some economists, free markets maximize individual freedom producing both what is called Pareto efficiency (no one can be made better off without someone being made worse off) and Kaldor-Hicks efficiency (overall greatest net wealth for a society).  Government regulation interferes with economic markets, damaging both individual freedom and both forms of efficiency.  Market fundamentalism in the guise of contemporary Republican or neo-liberal politics, ascribes to this belief.

Yet there are limits to this economic market fundamentalism.  The same Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations also penned The Theory of Moral Sentiments and argued how economic markets are circumscribed by ethical values and virtues.  The Wealth of Nations in book five recognizes an important role for the government investing in infrastructure.  Later on, other economists have described unregulated markets as producing externalities such as pollution or monopolies.  Others see externalities to include the mal-distributions of wealth and income in the world or racial and gender discrimination.  Economic markets are also  plagued by problems such as free riders or collective goods.  These problems necessitate government action.  Even Milton Friedman recognized the need of the government to enforce the rules of the marketplace against force and fraud so that it would work properly.

The point is markets are not architectonic.  Markets are not inherently self-regulating or natural.  Karl Polany’s 1944 The Great Transformation made this point.  It took enormous state power to construct and maintain market capitalism. The logic of both capitalism and human nature is often against free markets, wanting to produce collusion, monopolies, or engage in rent-seeking behavior or political action to favor oneself.  Pure self-interest left on its own, as Nobel Prize economist Kenneth Arrow pointed out, cannot be aggregated to produce collective goods for a society.

The marketplace of ideas is also powerful.  John Milton writing in his 1644 Areopagitica argued against censorship and suppression of religious views in the belief that the competition among religious sects would reveal the truth.  John Stuart Mill’s 1859 On Liberty similarly believed that the free play of ideas would yield the truth if there was a “chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.”  And in American constitutional law, it was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who in his 1919 Abrams v. United States dissent first introduced the market metaphor to the First Amendment when he contended that “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”  Since that decision, the hall mark of free speech jurisprudence is the belief that the marketplace of ideas will produce truth and inform the public.  Competition among rival ideas will filter truth from falsehood.

Yet if economic markets are flawed, so is the marketplace of ideas and they too may not be architectonic.  Beyond the fact that some are questioning whether truth even exists, what we learn from recent surveys is that faith in  free speech is waning.  Not a day does not go by that some group argues for restrictions on racist, sexist, or offensive speech or how the press should be regulated.  And a recent study by MIT professors points to something that many have suspected for some time–falsity or fake news  spreads more rapidly than truth on-line.  Because of the natural  tendency for people to be attracted to novelty, falsity is retweeted or posted more than truth.  The enduring power of myths such as vaccines cause autism is proof of this.  For a democracy to exist, its members must have the ability to express their views and search for truth.  Yet if the marketplace of ideas is not  working, democracy is in peril.

The problem then is that the marketplace of ideas too is producing externalities that must be addressed, but doing so without compromising the right and ability of individuals to think for themselves and access the information they need to do so.   How to regulate the marketplace of ideas to address externalities without censorship is a dilemma.   But this marketplace is also plagued or affected by the economic marketplace, allowing rich and powerful actors to use the resources they have acquired in there to adversely affect the marketplace of ideas.   The challenge is how both to preserve the marketplace of ideas from destroying itself while at the same time preventing the economic marketplace from destroying itself and corrupting the marketplace of ideas.

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David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.

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