Misconceptions of the Free Market of Ideas

Free market of ideas

One of the many arguments in favor of freedom of speech is the concept of a “free market of ideas.” As is the case for other goods in a free market, the best ideas naturally rise to the top and the inferior goods fail.

Or so the argument goes. But it is very superficial and misunderstands the intricacies of how markets function. Advocates of this argument for free speech rarely go into detail about what makes an idea “best,” and what makes an idea on this market rise to the top.

In a free market, goods are driven by demand. The “best” goods are not those that have the highest quality, but rather those that best satisfy the wants and needs of the consumer (otherwise, the market would be dominated by Ferraris and Teslas rather than more affordable cars). If consumers desire cheaper, low quality goods, these will be more abundant in a free market than expensive, high quality goods.

Of course, consumers are not a hive mind. Some people value affordability, while wealthier individuals are usually more willing to spend more. Some people want goods that are more practical, while others may want the same kind of good as a status symbol. Whatever they may want, there is pressure within a market to provide for this.

Now, one must apply this same line of thinking to a free market of ideas. The “best” ideas (in the context of the original argument) must be those that are most capable of satisfying consumer demand.

What do consumers demand in the market of ideas? Many people demand ideas that confirm their biases, and are not too concerned about the quality of the ideas themselves. Because there is a demand for ideas that confirm biases, there will be a corresponding supply of ideas that specialize in confirming biases.

Many of these same people do not want to hear ideas that challenge what they believe and that make them think about difficult topics. In the market of ideas, there will be those that fulfill this demand.

There is also a demand for new ideas. Just as the news cycle constantly moves onto different topics when old news becomes boring, there is a demand for discussion and debate on the newest topics and very little demand for ideas that have been repeatedly discussed over and over again.

Of course, there are also people that demand ideas that challenge what they currently believe, and have a genuine interest in the pursuit of what is true, along with a demand for honest actors promoting what they understand to be true. It is this group that demands a supply of honesty and truth.

Returning to the original argument, we must remember that the market caters to demand. If a majority of people demand ideas that confirm their own biases, these ideas will rise to the top. If a majority of people demand quality ideas that align with the truth, these ideas will rise to the top. But this is entirely reliant on what consumers demand.

This is not a critique of the free exchange of ideas, nor is it a call for censorship or government control of this “market of ideas.” It is merely a critique of this particular argument. What advocates of this argument often seem to forget is that the market is not an abstract “invisible hand,” but instead the summation of voluntary exchanges and individual choices. It is all of us that decide which needs the market satisfies.

If people reward biased media over truthful media, biased media will dominate the market of ideas. If people demand a high standard of truth in media and reward honesty, truthful media will prevail.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]