Marketplace of ideas

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The marketplace of ideas is the theory that, in a free market of ideas, bad ideas will be subordinated to good ideas in the long run, as good ideas will win more adherents in the absence of governmental pressure to adopt one idea. The modern concept of the marketplace in democracy and civil society was developed by British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his famous essay On Liberty.

American Free Speech

This theory has become an underpinning of American free speech law, and the interpretation of the clause of the First Amendment: as Justice Holmes wrote in Abrams v. United States, mere disagreement with speech is never enough to condemn it: political majorities should be content to put their faith in the marketplace of ideas, that their ideas will win out in the end, and if they don't, that they didn't deserve to in the first place.[1] Thus, the marketplace of ideas confronts "bad speech" by offering the remedy of "good speech" and competition to cure it.[2]

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 safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.[3]

Of course, the marketplace cannot be expected to cure all bad speech. Where speech constitutes an incitement to a breach of the peace, for example, the government should feel free to step in.[4]

Rejection of the Free Marketplace of Ideas

It is a hallmark of dictatorships that they tend to suppress free speech, as they fear that their ideas will not stand up in the marketplace of ideas, and can only survive with an administrative crutch, or by the forceful suppression of dissent. Dictatorships tend to fall.[5]

References

  1. Holmes' argument was all the more stunning in its implications because, in Abrams he used it to refer to the struggle against communism! He argued that communism was clearly inferior, and therefore there was no need to fear its participation in the marketplace of ideas. And if it won out in the end, it probably deserved to.
  2. 250 U.S. 616.
  3. Id. at 630 (Holmes, J., dissenting). While a dissenter here, Holmes' argument later became accepted as settled law, in an odd turn of events. Geoffrey Stone, The First Amendment, Aspen Publishing 2005.
  4. Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444.
  5. See the article on the USSR.
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