Ideas are for sale. Outlets like CNN, The New York Times, Newsmax, and National Public Radio know their customers well, and the ideas they espouse are packaged to maximize profits. In this way, democratic deliberation is commodified. It could be said that this has been true at least since the publication of newspapers, but it is more true now in an era of instant communication, radical consumer choice, and the mimetic power of digital technology. One cannot grasp the dynamics of today’s public discourse without an understanding of its market dimensions. And while the marketplace of ideas has been a mainstay of American democracy since the beginning, this market is now full of manipulation and racketeering.
A History of the American Marketplace
In the ancient world, a contest of ideas was often referred to with the term “dialectic” – a word Plato and others used to describe a form of logical debate which led participants closer and closer to the truth of a particular matter through a process of mutual refutation. Of course, Plato was no great friend of democracy. He was concerned that rhetorical manipulation could rig the outcome of the dialogue. The power of persuasion, he suggested, might lead audiences to accept untrue propositions as the truth. In fact, Plato claimed that this perverted form of deliberation was the main one on display in ancient Athens – one of many reasons that he viewed democracy as less than ideal. Regardless, Plato and other ancient sources make clear that the marketplace of ideas is as old as western civilization itself.
Obviously, the American founders based the nation largely on the democratic model that Plato warned against. In the metaphorical sense, America was explicitly designed as a marketplace of ideas, even if that term didn’t come into use until much more recently. The architects of our republic wrote extensively about how free expression was integral to the proper function of democracy. By nature, good governance requires decision-making on issues where the ideal way to proceed isn’t clear. It is the free exchange of ideas that allows our leaders to make informed choices – the ones that are most-likely to effectively address the problems we face.
Still, the founders acknowledged the ancient critique of a government “of the people,” and consciously tried to protect against its risks when they designed our democracy. Why did they settle on democracy in spite of its downsides? In large part, it was because they had a rosier view of the rational and moral capacities of the average human being. Generally, the architects of American democracy believed that the typical, informed member of the demos was fit to make good decisions about the life of the nation. Over the past decade, though, that assumption has met with ever-greater skepticism from the most powerful institutions of our society.
For years, the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia prided itself as a democratic source of knowledge since it was maintained by users – a compendium of the people, by the people, for the people. However, like so much online media since 2015, Wikipedia now employs various kinds of soft censorship, which ultimately result in a general skewing of information towards the cultural Left. But even Wikipedia is honest about the long history of “the marketplace of ideas” in the American tradition. The authors of the entry under that heading note that writers in the early republic acknowledged the marketplace without using that exact terminology, and they go on to explain that the modern uses of the phrase gained traction in American jurisprudence during the first part of the 20th century. After various implicit references in legal discourse, the first explicit reference to the “marketplace of ideas” occurred in a 1953 opinion of the Supreme Court.
Do You Buy It? At What Cost?
The courts’ references still used the term metaphorically, but today the exchange of ideas works according to the logic of the market in the most literal sense. When a person is unconvinced of something, they will often say, “I don’t buy it.” When remarking that someone was persuaded by a certain claim or idea, a person might exclaim, “He bought it!” These phrases emphasize the economic dimensions of public discourse. When it comes to physical commercial goods, it is common knowledge that people “buy low” and “sell high.” This also holds in the marketplace of ideas.
There are some claims that one can believe (or pretend to believe) at little cost. Some “low-cost” ideas of this sort include “The Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective,” “There was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election,” “America needs to have an honest conversation about race,” and “No human being is illegal.” Holding these beliefs (or saying that you do) has no cost – no one will call you stupid, threaten your job, or attack your character. In fact, holding these ideas to be true may have some social benefits (getting a promotion, a good grade, or gaining the trust of your associates). Citizens have little to lose by repeating them (low cost), and perhaps have something to gain by doing so (high value). For these reasons, it is easy to find people who have bought these claims. This, in turn, creates an artificial perception of consensus – one which carries some coercive force in that it incentivizes those who might disagree to keep quiet or claim to believe something that they don’t.
Conversely, there are other ideas that come at a higher price. For example, if you believe that “The Covid-19 virus was probably the result of gain-of-function research in a Chinese virology lab,” or that “There was considerable fraud in the 2020 election resulting from widespread use of mail-in ballots,” or that “Trans-women are not women” – well, you will incur some costs if you buy these ideas. You might be deemed a “conspiracy theorist” by friends, family, or co-workers. You may be suspended for wrongthink on social media. You might receive lower grades or be denied a promotion. Thus, claims of this sort are both “high cost” (as they may negatively impact your reputation) and “low value” (as you have little to gain from espousing them).
Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that the cost and value of a given idea has nothing to do with its truth status. The truth of an idea like “The Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective” cannot yet be assessed: scientifically speaking, we haven’t had enough time to definitively evaluate that claim. Despite this unknown element, this belief remains a low cost/high value assertion, which is therefore widely “bought” by the public. On the other hand, a claim like “Trans-women are not women” – which would have been accepted as true by almost everyone only a short time ago – currently circulates as a high cost/low value belief in the marketplace of ideas. If that doesn’t deter people from buying it, it will at least deter many from saying that they do.
But if the truth of an idea is not what determines the cost or value of a claim in the rhetorical marketplace, what does? Not all voices wield the same power in the public dialogue, and some speakers are better positioned than others to influence the terms of the exchange. In our era, when digital technology serves as the primary medium of democratic deliberation, the private entities that control the social media platforms have the greatest control over public discourse and the marketplace of ideas. This is why the “Twitter Files” reporting (which documents the ideologically-biased manipulation of dialogue on the social media giant before the purchase by Elon Musk) is so important. It exposes not only the lengths these giants would go to in order to rig the debate, but also how extraordinarily effective they have been at ensuring that certain ideas are effectively taken off the shelves of the marketplace. This, in turn, exposes the reason that the stories of Twitter’s corruption have been studiously ignored by mainstream media outlets: they rightly intuit that these revelations could diminish their ability to set the terms of exchange in the marketplace of ideas. And that outcome would be devastating to the interests of American elites.
In essence, what we have is a marketplace of ideas that is skewed by an enormous, conspiratorial form of price-rigging – an effort to ensure that owners of the spaces where public deliberation now unfolds get to dictate the costs and benefits that attend the commercial exchange of information. This rigging is an existential threat to whatever remains of genuine democratic governance. And while it isn’t yet possible to say how we would go about “unrigging” the national dialogue, we can be sure that it won’t happen until most citizens recognize that it is indeed rigged, and also understand how it is rigged. This is why it’s so important to dismiss the notion that “there is no marketplace of ideas.”
The problem isn’t that there is an economic aspect of the process of democratic deliberation – it’s that this marketplace has itself been commodified and destroyed by insider trading and racketeering. To deny that any marketplace exists is an attempt to blind us to this corruption. Ultimately, if Americans accepted that idea, the cost would be very high, as it would undermine our entire tradition of democratic deliberation by further disenfranchising everyday people from the public dialogue. Citizens simply can’t afford to buy it.