The term “marketplace of ideas” was coined by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his dissent in Abrams v. United States. Holmes wrote 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 can be carried out.”
As media historian Tim Wu wrote in The Master Switch, this concept has become “a central metaphor in the national discourse about free speech.” The idea has evolved to denote that the way we improve society is by giving all speech a platform, and eventually, the best ideas will win out. In this framework, uninterrupted free speech is optimal and censorship snowballs into tyranny.
The “marketplace of ideas” is a noble concept that puts faith in empirical, rational debate, but too often, our society refuses to think critically about how it can also be an efficient tool of power and a platform for hegemony.
We often focus on the value of spreading ideas and not shunning people “just because we disagree with them,” but don’t take into account the market dynamics which make some ideas “worth” more than others. It’s for this reason, I want to pose the question: what happens in a society where we defend the ability to express any idea, but forget about how markets actually work?
I will focus less on the fact that white supremacy is false or bad (or at least that open debate could render it false or bad) and more on idea that white supremacy (and its adjacent theories) is “worth” something (historical, social, psychological, emotional, cultural, etc. capital) to a critical mass of people, and therefore can’t be pushed out of the marketplace of ideas through rational debate.
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Markets are places, platforms, systems, etc. where people can buy and sell goods, services, ideas etc. So in the marketplace of ideas (I’ll abbreviate as MOI), think of an idea as a product that could be bought or sold.
In the real marketplace, we like to think that the best products rise to the top. However, just like in a real market, regardless of whether an idea is “good” or “bad,” it can be marketed to be perceived as good or bad, in the same way Coke can be marketed as better than Pepsi (even though their tastes, quality, ingredients, etc. are more or less equal). In this case, the “marketing” would be how facts and ideas change or don’t change, are made more or less serviceable based on the moralities, ideologies, politics, interests, feelings, etc. through which we filter them (for example, slavery was once a good idea based on economics, eugenic science, religion, etc.; separating church and state was once a bad idea, this position supported by morality, theology, etc.).
In holding the MOI ideology sacred, we often overlook the fact that a market isn’t this universal thing, but is very specific and localized. People actively dictate what ideas are good or worth something based on their own experiences, beliefs, tastes, wants, needs, etc. There isn’t a big market for car decals of American flags or college panels on the “greatness of Western civilization” in Pakistan, for example.
Depending on its make-up, the market makes decisions no more or less neutral than a Chicagoan deciding that Cubs jerseys are worth more than Red Sox jerseys. We often don’t see how markets flip our conceptions of “worth” and good: it isn’t just that good ideas are worth more, market value dictates that an idea can be good because it is worth something.
Different ideas have different worth and serviceability based on the beliefs, incentives, politics and power dynamics of the majority of people who make up that market and/or a minority who has disproportionate power to dictate what is worth something in the market. Who holds the power in the market dictates the worth an idea (for example, Silicon Valley asserts that automation is coming and working class people will need to adapt to it. Whose interests does it serve to decide that automation is inevitable? Silicon Valley).
As law professor Mary Anne Franks writes in The Cult of the Constitution, “The only conclusion one could draw about an idea that has triumphed in the marketplace is that many people like it, or at least the people with the most power in the marketplace like it.” Since the power dynamics of our society is skewed towards white and/or male citizens (either as a majority in the West, or powerful minority in the world), white men disproportionately dictate the “worth” of ideas (i.e.what ideas should or should not get a platform).
An idea (whether it is good or bad) that is worth something to those in power is by definition a good idea. It will generally be heard because it serves the interests of those in power. Ideas that are actually bad can persist because the market has decided they have some serviceability.
Colleges are inviting different versions of straight white men to explain why Western society is the best, why Islam is religion of hate, why maybe Black people are poor because of their culture and genetics, why diversity and inclusion is “postmodern cultural NeoMarxism,” and that there are only two genders. Are these ideas good or bad? We can debate that. Are they worth anything? That isn’t debatable. The answer is yes.
Well, how much are they worth? Instead of trying to make some approximation of a subjective value, I think a better way to get a measure of worth would be to look at who these colleges are not inviting.
They aren’t inviting Muslims who think Christianity is a religion of hate and show presentations on how most domestic terrorists are white men. They aren’t inviting Afrocentric separatists who use pseudoscience about melanin to argue that white people are genetically inferior to Africans or talk about how the Moors “civilized” Europe. They aren’t inviting Chinese socialists to give historical evidence or SAT test scores of Asian Americans to argue for the “greatness of Eastern civilization.”
These people absolutely do exist, but they generally aren’t given prestigious platforms. If the logic is that the “alt-right” of the world should not be de-platformed, who in these collegial spaces are looking to give those from the opposite extreme a talk or panel? Wouldn’t the debates between these extremes be the quintessence of putting into practice the sanctity of free speech and open debate? If we believe in the right for everyone to have a platform, why aren’t these opposing ideas getting equal space in the “marketplace of ideas?”
Because they have little to no worth in our society.
We’ve decided that whether their arguments are right or wrong, sound or flawed, rooted in evidence or half-truths and lies, empirical or emotional, there is no market for them.
However, the MOI has at least tacitly accepted that white supremacy and its subtle, palatable and “reasonable” adjacencies (the superiority of “Western civilization,” concepts such as “racial realism”; the idea that the social problems of African Americans are not byproducts of slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism, but cultural, pathological and likely genetic, etc.) has some worth to a critical mass of people within it.
Being able to debate white supremacy out of the marketplace of ideas has about as the same probability as being able to convince governments to stop deforestation. The most powerful actors and greatest incentives within the market assure that the value of wood is greater than the need to reduce harm to the environment. And that shows the big problem with assuming the essence of rational debate is market logic: if the market is rational, it has rationally decided that white supremacy should be in the Overton window; if it is irrational, why do we have so much dogmatic faith in it?
There’s a fundamental disconnect between free speech absolutists interpretation of unfettered speech, and how it actually applies itself in the real world. If we all just started saying what we way, yes, maybe we could change the world with great ideas. But here’s what’s more likely to happen: a lot of our free thoughts would be pretty racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, narcissistic, jingoistic, etc. And in the “Western world,” accepting a market logic to free thought will end up with a lot of people getting much larger platforms to say Black people are lazy and genetically inferior, etc., men should be in charge because they are smarter and stronger than women, Mexicans take our jobs, “I think Islam hates us,” Jews own the world, AI is better than humans and maybe the reason white people have disproportionate power in the world is because they are just better than everyone else.
People such as white supremacists often exploit the MOI concept as both a defense against “censorship” and to provide an entry point for others to accept their ideas. Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, is on the board of directors on an organization called Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas (FMI). The executive director of FMI is Kyle Bristow, a man that the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR) claims promotes theories about white genocide, discrimination against European Americans, invited white nationalist speakers while he was a student at Michigan State, and organized numerous bigoted publicity stunts, including “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” (cancelled), a “straight power” rally, and a “Koran desecration contest”’ (among many other things).
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with defending free speech. I think it helps keep war in the mind and not in the streets. But if we don’t recognize the historical power dynamics at play, we allow a kind of free speech fundamentalism to be a safe haven for bigotry. Defending free speech without talking about power is just a defense of hegemony. To repurpose a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., it is “freedom and famine at the same time.”
Holmes felt that the marketplace of ideas would be the “best test of truth,” but in his seminal metaphor, his confidence in truth caused him to underestimate the dynamics of the market. Markets find solutions but they also create problems. Over time, they transform as much as they can into capital. They make irrational things rational and vice versa.
As long as they can effectively articulate and disseminate their ideas in the sweet spot of plausible deniability, white supremacists will continue to use the marketplace of ideas as both a sword of hate and a shield of victimhood. It guarantees that there will always be a demand for what they supply.