The theory of ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ is a metaphor for freedom of expression, and states that ideas compete with each other in the market, and eventually every individual critically evaluates them to pass a judgment. OpinionFront talks about this concept with the help of some examples.
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
― John F. Kennedy
Freedom of expression is one of the basic rights of any individual. When you wish to review any product before buying it, you visit online portals that exhibit consumer’s opinions and ratings of the product. In this case, you try to take opinions and suggestions of everyone to arrive at a consensus. You have the freedom to choose.
Similarly, marketplace of ideas is a theory which states that every idea has its own importance, and it is up to the market to churn out the truth. Citizens make a rational decision on the basis of these rulings. Now let’s see what the definition of marketplace of ideas is, the origin of the word, and a few examples.
Definition of ‘Marketplace of Ideas’
The theory of ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ suggests that freedom of expression in the market will eventually lead to the discovery of the truth by society. Thus, in this context, it is stated that every person is entitled to critically evaluate and pass his own judgment. All ideas have their own worth, and a citizen should rationally evaluate, the way he does in case of a new product in market. It is a metaphor for freedom of expression.
What proponents of this theory suggested: Ideas will compete in the market, and in their clashes quality will improve, and the truth will finally be revealed. The government should not interfere in press and social media, since any degree of government regulation might distort the truth.
Examples of ‘Marketplace of Ideas’
Abrams v. United States
This landmark case gained immense popularity due to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent on the ruling given by the court, and marked the birth of the concept of ‘marketplace of ideas’ as a legal concept. Anarchist Joseph Abrams was convicted for distributing fliers that opposed President Woodrow Wilson for dispatching troops to Russia. According to Holmes, distribution of fliers merely to oppose the government for its involvement in war did not tantamount to some heinous crime, it was merely an expression, an opinion, which everyone is entitled to, and not to serve a potential threat to the government, that might ignite the necessity to regulate their freedom of speech. He used the ‘clear and present danger’ test to show his dissent for the conviction.
His infamous quote is as follows –
When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas–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. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”
― Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
‘Areopagitica’ by John Milton
The basic ideas of ‘marketplace’ which proposed and encouraged liberty and freedom of speech is quoted in a brilliant work called ‘Areopagitica’ by John Milton. This work mainly advocates freedom of the press, and dissuades censorship on any ground. It was written in 1644 as a plea to the government of England to withdraw the Licensing Order of June 16, 1643. He has very aptly described the importance of freedom of expression. He also stated that along with good, there must be bad, since both of them together help society learn about truth. Though this work was ignored by the parliament, it set up a huge milestone for unconventional thoughts, and ignited radical changes in attitude and thinking.
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
― John Milton, Areopagitica
‘On Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill
In his work ‘On Liberty’, Mill explains the meaning of liberty, and its impact on society. He states that every individual has the ability to critically evaluate, and unpopular opinions help in determining the truth, since it encourages society to have newer perspectives. No voice should be muffled, and everyone should have the freedom to have their own opinion, whatsoever, provided he claims responsibility for it. No thought should be imposed on any individual, simply because it is considered true by a group of people. The government should value everyone’s opinion, and should not only follow what is the judgment of the majority.
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the rights of citizens, giving them liberty of speech, faith, and religion, and prohibits Congress from passing any law that prohibits the freedom of speech of the press or individuals. Of course, there are certain parameters as to what exactly is considered ‘freedom of speech’.
‘The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University’ by Louis Menand
This book speaks about how there has been a revolutionary change in the studying patterns of students and teachers. However, the education system still continues to have the same rigid, conventional method of study. With the advancement of technology, gradually there are many changes and the way students learn. Thus, the author suggests that the University can become a ‘marketplace of ideas’, and be receptive to new ideas.
Criticism of the Theory
Critics suggest that the theory is based on many assumptions. It is not necessary that consumers are rational enough to understand that. It might result into vague information being distributed, and it is not necessary that citizens are the best judge. No one wants what the truth is, and wish to believe lies, since the truth can be bitter.
It is not necessary that the winning argument is the truth. Furthermore, marketing gimmicks may even fool the public, and the one that stands best, or is marketed the best, wins, which might not be the truth.
Further, it is human tendency to have ‘herd mentality’ or to fall victim to Groupthink. Instead of dissenting and inviting the wrath of everyone, it is easier to please everyone, and accept that what everyone thinks is the truth.
Thus, this theory stressed on the liberty of freedom of expression of individuals as well as the media. Of course, marketplace of ideas in media and journalism should be governed by ethics, and liberty should not be taken for granted. The U.S. is one of those nations to have a culture of free mindset, where every individual is free to follow his own beliefs, not only legally, but also socially.