Speak For Yourself: A Meditation on the Marketplace of Ideas

Speak For Yourself: A Meditation on the Marketplace of Ideas by Stuart Whatley

Can free expression truly be free in a marketplace of ideas?

October 4th, 2013 reset - +

“More than any other country on earth, we are the true marketplace of ideas.

—July 4 editorial, The Times (Frankfort, Indiana)

“The [Los Angeles Times] editorial page would be a marketplace of ideas where all sorts of approaches to public policy issues are vetted and contrasted and there could be ongoing debate. We think this approach would create much more interest, more readers, and would ultimately improve newspapers as a business proposition.”

Charles Koch, June 6, 2013

“Part of how the Muslim Brotherhood drew support during the Mubarak era was because they were one of the few fonts of opposition — in a more open marketplace of ideas, I think extreme ideologies have less appeal, and the Brotherhood itself hasn't seen its popularity rise despite ongoing discontent in Egypt.”

— Adam Serwer, The American Prospect, August 1, 2011


THE UNITED STATES IS A MARKETPLACE society. Markets not only ground our economy, they are often introduced, with near religious zeal, as unrivaled instruments for organizing every aspect of our lives: health care, education, national security, the prison system. There is even a market for standing in line to talk to your congressman. The belief in markets is so absolute that to reject market-oriented solutions in favor of alternatives — single-payer health care instead of the privatized insurance exchanges of the Affordable Care Act, for example — is a nonstarter. Why not then a “marketplace for ideas?” Hand in hand with the examined life, we have come to venerate its possibility more and more.

As a metaphor for free expression, it certainly seems to have a fair and democratic ring to it. But one wonders what a marketplace of ideas would actually look like in practice. The most recognizable examples seem unsavory, from paid-for book reviews on Amazon.com to oil and gas industry-funded think tanks commissioning tendentious studies that deny climate change. (See Elliott Negin’s recent report about the consulting firm IHS Global Insight and its “studies” about horizontal drilling and hydraulic “fracking,” and how the media reports on the results.) These are ideas produced for the market and put up for sale; if we don’t like what that looks like, we should think about the implications of market logic fully realized in intellectual life. Would all the information and ideas be put on exchanges like so many stocks to be bought and sold? Would it all be housed behind private firewalls or encryptions (which the government, and thus its business allies, may nonetheless be able to crack)? Would the government regulate this market like it does others and participate in it as a buyer or seller?

Whether information and ideas can be privatized, bought and sold is a question already playing out in real-world contexts. Our broken patent system has given way to rogue “entrepreneurs” securing patents, often on general concepts and ideas, then using those patents to extort licensing fees from businesses using technology covered by those patents. The Supreme Court this year heard a case wherein the Utah-based biotech company Myriad Genetics sought to patent a segment of DNA; that is, a segment of biological information (the court ruled against Myriad this time, but it would be foolish to think the question won’t return in the future). Meanwhile, information activists who have tried to undermine this trend have, in some cases, been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The late Aaron Swartz was very publicly arrested and prosecuted by the federal government for allegedly attempting to make prohibitively expensive academic journals accessible to all (he committed suicide before his case went to trial); that same government is a regular paying customer to many Silicon Valley firms specializing in data aggregation and mining, an open secret dramatically revealed, most recently, by Edward Snowden. And so it goes.

How does a marketplace of ideas operate? Most who use the phrase today would say they’re speaking figuratively; a free market itself is a liberal ideal, positing that rational self-interest on the part of individuals will, collectively, lead to the best outcomes. In the realm of ideas, the maxim that “the market knows best” seems promising, but it doesn’t always work out that way. As Cass Sunstein, one critic of the metaphor, notes, valid information can be elusive in an open exchange because of various cognitive biases and information cascades:

Rumor transmission often involves the rational processing of information, in a way that leads people, quite sensibly in light of their existing knowledge, to believe and to spread falsehoods […] the processes that underlie the “marketplace of ideas” sometimes work poorly, because they ensure that many people will converge on falsehoods rather than truth.

Or, as Stendhal observed long ago, “petty despotisms reduce to nothing the value of public opinion.”

Beyond Sunstein’s heuristic critiques, markets in the real world are susceptible to monopolistic machinations, asymmetrical information, and distortions from government, industry, speculation, and malfeasance. It is important to remember that the marketplace of ideas is a market, and it fails as a metaphor for anyone lacking a starry-eyed view of markets themselves. It is not the “contest of opinion” Thomas Jefferson once described in his first inaugural address; there is an aspect of business to it, and with this, certain consequences.

In fact, the metaphor of a market for ideas isn’t really a metaphor at all. It’s a description of public relations, the one industry where ideas are actually supposed to be bought and sold; it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, to learn that it was PR men who helped to bring the “marketplace of ideas” into common usage in the first place.


The very notion of a “marketplace of ideas” tracks exactly with neoliberalism’s rising star. This can be seen through Nexis searches of the term, as well as through Google’s n-gram book search between 1800 and 2008. Since first breaking into common usage with a couple dozen mentions in the 1970s, its appearances have increased exponentially decade by decade in books, newspapers, journals, and similar forms of media to the point that it is now published hundreds of times every year. Though use of the phrase actually declined very slightly in books between 2000 and 2008 (not to any degree of significance), it increased in news media year by year over the same course of time — especially between 2008 and 2012. While public policy can be altered and reversed from one administration or congress to another, the fideistic embrace of market vocabulary across political divides indicates that it has become more deeply embedded — instead of being the subject of political debate, it designates the coordinates of what is debatable as politics.

It did not take until the 1970s for the “marketplace of ideas” to develop, but it did take that long for it to really become prevalent. Before then it had mainly been the subject of legal opinions, notably in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1919 Abrams v. United States dissent. The law scholar Ronald Collins points out that Holmes used the metaphor, if not the exact phrase, when he wrote, “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.” For his part, Holmes was influenced by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which in turn drew from John Milton’s Areopagitica, which asked, “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” With Holmes as the more direct line of inspiration, the actual words would come to form decades later in other free speech and free press court opinions, including United States v. Rumely (1953) and Lamont v. Postmaster General (1965). In the latter, Justice William Brennan opined that, “The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.”

Back to the early 1970s: big business was a beleaguered beast, feeling the need to counter the popular social movements of the previous decade, and found it prudent to press-gang the “marketplace of ideas” into its service. After a series of crises in capitalism — stagflation, the collapse of Bretton Woods, the 1973 Oil Shock — the solution eventually proffered was even more capitalism. Which is to say, the failure of postwar Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies to turn the economy around led in time to a loss of faith in their effectiveness and to the ouster of leftward-leaning leaders Jimmy Carter and James Callahan. When the recessionary waves did eventually subside, the timing allowed for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to dance on their predecessors’ political graves, accredit their own success to market fundamentalism, and move forward full bore with its implementation through tax cuts and financial deregulation. As Reagan later declared on the New York Stock Exchange floor, “We’re going to turn the bull loose.”

And so, the “marketplace of ideas” began to appear for the first time in the mainstream press — most notably in reports quoting corporate public relations professionals in defense of their respective industries. To take one early example, in a July 1975 U.S. News & World Report interview titled “Why Business Has a Black Eye,” Alexander B. Trowbridge, president of a corporate advocacy organization called the Conference Board, addressed questions about the lugubrious public favorability of big business:

We businessmen have to get out individually into this marketplace of ideas. We have to be far more involved in our communities. We have to be in closer touch with the groups of people with whom we have close contact — our employees, out stockholders, the community leaders in places where we have our plants and offices, and our customers and suppliers. We need to do a better job not only in supporting them with better products, but in explaining the workings of our business system and what makes it all tick.

A March 1976 Newsweek article by Michael Ruby and Gretchen Browne titled “Oil: The Mobil Manner” followed, reporting on a full-page advertisement taken out by Mobil in response to a critical NBC News documentary about gasoline prices. According to Mobil’s vice president of public affairs, Herbert Schmertz, “The ad was an effort to participate in the market-place of ideas" (Schmertz’s line would be quoted again two years later in a Harvard Business Review story by Louis Banks, titled “Taking on the Hostile Media”). Such participation, the reporters note, had become a trend of late. And it would only continue, to the point where even Jimmy Carter invoked the metaphor in an unwittingly ironic 1977 statement, declaring Voice of America independent from State Department propagandizing:

The agency must not operate in a covert, manipulative or propagandistic way […] Under this administration, [Voice of America] will be solely responsible for the content of its news broadcasts — for there is no more valued coin than candor in the international marketplace of ideas.


While it’s unclear how much of this was a consciously cooperative effort on the part of business and pro-market advocates, it was, regardless, in keeping with the corporate PR strategy of the time — what sociologists David Miller and William Dinan have labeled the “third wave of corporate political activism.” That wave rode from the late 1960s through the 1970s, and saw vast and rapid expansion in corporate lobbying, the founding of numerous business-funded think tanks (including the Heritage Foundation, an early influence on the Reagan presidential platform), and increased media involvement on the part of businesses across the board. According to Miller and Dinan, a collective corporate strategy was effectively launched in a private August 1971 memo from corporate lawyer (and later Supreme Court justice) Lewis F. Powell Jr. to US Chamber of Commerce Education Committee chairman Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., in which Powell wrote: “It is time for American business — which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in all history to produce and to influence consumer decisions — to apply [its] great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself.”

But like the term itself, the corporate strategy behind its savvy adoption did not just emerge all of a sudden. It also aligned with the PR strategy delineated in a previous period of corporate doldrums, the New Deal era. The days following the 1929 stock market crash were dark ones for businesses, too: taxes were levied, regulations were imposed, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, corporate America’s public enemy number one, just kept on getting reelected. According to media scholar Stuart Ewen — in his authoritative history of public relations, PR! — American business during the 1930s underwent a “crisis of legitimacy,” similar to that of the early 1970s. According to Ewen, “co-opting the vernacular of political activism […] as in the labor movement, the consumer movement, and the cooperative movement” was central to the decade’s corporate PR strategy:

Through linguistic analogy, they sought to portray a bond of social concern that connected big business’ PR activities with the activities of American who were engaged in a politics that was, as a rule, diametrically opposed to customary corporation policies.

The primary business coalition during this period, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), sought, in its own words, to “link free enterprise in the public consciousness with free speech, free press and free religion as integral parts of democracy” — just as PR men would do again in the nascent neoliberal years of the 1970s. Indeed, this conscious conjoining of American political and economic life into synonymous concepts — republican democracy and capitalism, respectively — has been a central element to corporate public relations efforts ever since its infancy early in the 20th century. Or, as the Economic League, a British business advocacy group, stated in its mission statement in 1926, “What is required is some years of propaganda for capitalism as the finest system that human ingenuity can devise, to counteract forty years of propaganda for Socialism.”


What has the age of market fundamentalism wrought? A highlight reel of the past three decades would show extravagant material prosperity for many, but also the decimation of organized labor and collective bargaining, increased income inequality and household debt, stagnant wages for most workers over time, slow economic growth, and an increasingly volatile boom-and-bust cycle that leaves mass unemployment in its path. Political life, meanwhile, has seen a decline in civic engagement and an influx of voter apathy, or purposeful nonparticipation. According to media theorist Robert Hassan, “Millions of voters across Western democracies and beyond have, since the 1970s, abandoned the idea that political parties any longer speak to their day-to-day concerns, so deeply has traditional politics been implicated with the aims of big business and the ‘free’ market.”

But for public relations, new markets are new opportunities, and as Michael Sandel puts it in his eloquent 2012 book, What Money Can’t Buy, a principle trend of the current age is “the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” Sandel’s central insight is that markets impose their values on everything they touch. Like the distinction between a physical and chemical change in chemistry, markets can act on certain spheres of life in so transformational — and often degrading — a manner as to alter not just their form but also their actual composition. You can’t buy love, because as soon as you do, it isn’t actually love anymore; when we extend this insight to the realm of ideas, we witness an act that annihilates knowledge itself. Knowledge, bought and sold, divorced from subjective, individual meaning or intellectual sincerity, becomes mere information — data produced for the market and fit for consumption but not moral or mental succor.

The internet is especially primed for this, which is why it has been a boondoggle for public relations professionals (who now outnumber journalists four to one, more than a threefold increase since 1980). One can use social media and open, online publishing platforms to push whatever agenda one gets paid to advance. Ostensibly independent bloggers are often offered, and sometimes accept, payment in exchange for mentioning particular products, brands or political talking points. Online reputation sites, such as the cynically named Humankind, post positive reviews about client companies around the web for as little as $25. This type of transaction, of course, is not new. In “The Portrait” (1835) Gogol’s artist, Chartkov, pays newspapermen to publish flattering profiles about him; but as Gogol makes clear, this is an undignified act, part of Chartkov’s descent into charlatanism and, eventually, madness. Chartkov the pseudo-celebrity is born, but Chartkov the artist can never be reclaimed.

And knowledge continues to sell beyond the online world, most notably in Washington, where public service itself — and with it the expertise it is held to require — is now little more than a stepping stone to cozy influence peddling jobs (a stale gripe, indeed, but despairingly valid; the farcicality of Newt Gingrich making bank as a “historian” does not make it any less true).

All told, if the trend continues, it will become increasingly difficult to parse knowledge from commodified information — that is, organic intellectual manifestations of original thought from ideas produced for the purpose of being sold on the market. Commodification always occurs on a slippery slope – once one unit is sold, all similar units immediately qualify for the same treatment — but in the case of information, it’s closer to a mudslide. What does commodified information mean for individuals — producers and consumers? In an information society driven by a service economy it can take many forms, as we are essentially in the service of information as the regnant font of power. If you can’t be a buyer you must become a seller, so many people have no choice but to surrender their independent mental productive capacity over to capitalized purveyors of information, because that’s what pays. We see the marketplace of ideas in the transparent quid pro quo of public relations and advertising, but we also discern it in countless other areas of public life — anywhere one finds conflicting interests or ideas conceived or swayed at the behest of a pecuniary benefactor. It is now little surprise to hear of an academician or well-known author being in the pocket of one industry or foreign government or another, or that, in compiling the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5), “the committees with the highest number of industrial links are those evaluating conditions for which drugs are the first-line treatment.”

We hear about these things all the time, but we have only impotent outrage at our disposal because this is how the market of ideas is supposed to work.[i] The public greets with obloquy the occasional news of someone tattooing a company’s name on his body in exchange for remuneration, but is this so fundamentally different from subjecting one’s intellectual integrity or expressed thoughts to a similar payment scheme, to the point where no one knows whom to listen to any longer (or from taking jobs in advertising even when we can’t stand to sit through the commercials ourselves)?

There isn’t much stopping the market engine in 21st century intellectual life, where producers in the public sphere subject themselves to individual degradation and consumers to ceaseless flimflam. In many ways, this could be the final frontier of cultural capitalism, the extreme proprietorship of the “permission culture” Lawrence Lessig warned of a decade ago: “a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past.” The questions posed earlier about a marketplace of ideas, fully realized, are not hypotheticals and one does well to remember that metaphors do not only describe reality; they sometimes help to create it. At this point, the marketplace of ideas may be irreversible. It is certainly quaint to lament the inertia of consumerism, advertising, commodification, and other market forces, just as it is quaint to stand against “progress” generally. We can’t just roll it all back. But in the marketplace of ideas, shouldn’t we, in the very least, be able to speak for ourselves?

i A recent example is the case of Elizabeth O’Bagy, a 26-year-old soi-disant Syria expert fired from the Institute for the Study of War after the PhD on her resume was deemed a fabrication, but not before she penned an influential op-ed for The Wall Street Journal white-washing the unsavory makeup of the Syrian rebels without disclosing that she was on the payroll for a Syrian rebel lobby; and not before her work was cited by none other than Secretary of State John Kerry as justification for military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Here we see the marketplace of ideas in all its glory, from a secretary of state falling prey to selective sourcing and confirmation bias to a fraudulent scholar dispensing intellectual services on the dole.


Stuart Whatley is an editor and writer in New York.