Why Do We Need Human Rights? (32): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas

First, a brief reminder of how I understand the marketplace of ideas and how it justifies freedom of speech. I normally don’t do this, but I can save us all a lot of time by quoting myself:

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

If this metaphor of the market is convincing then it can provide a powerful reason for adopting and protecting the right to free speech. There’s hardly a more valuable good than quality in thinking and if free speech can help to deliver that good it’s difficult to argue against this right.

Personally, I do think that the metaphor of the free market can help us to understand the logic and benefits of free and widespread public discussion and of the free exchange of and competition between ideas, and that this understanding can provide a good justification for freedom of speech. Much of what goes on in the marketplace of ideas is similar to what goes on in a market of goods or services. The important similarity is the free exchange of and competition between ideas, the lack of restrictions on exchange and competition, and the freedom of all to join in the exchange and competition on a equal footing. And although I would advise not to push the metaphor too far (a perpetual and fatal temptation of all economic metaphors), there’s probably one more similarity that can be useful, namely the concept of market failure.

Market failure in economics refers to those cases in which a free market, left to itself, fails to allocate goods and services efficiently. In other words, there is at least one market participant who may have been better off without anyone else being worse off had other systems operated instead of the free market. Examples of market failure are

  • information asymmetries, which occur when one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other (classic examples are the used-car salesman selling a defective car to someone who has no knowledge of cars, and the terminally ill person buying a life insurance)
  • externalities, which occur when a transaction has a cost that is not transmitted through prices and that is incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost (the classic example is industrial pollution imposing costs on the whole society, costs that are not included in the transaction price of the polluting goods).

Market failures can also occur in the marketplace of ideas. It’s important to check whether these market failures are enough of a problem to render the concept of a marketplace of ideas unworkable. If the marketplace of ideas can’t work properly most of the time, then it can’t function as a justification of freedom of speech. However, if market failures are due to insufficient free speech, then free speech can still be justified by the concept of the marketplace of ideas. The problem is that market failures in the marketplace of ideas often go beyond insufficient free speech. Let’s list some of those market failures:

  • Political correctness: political correctness is a form of silencing and therefore introduces market failure; if some arguments or some positions can’t be expressed and heard, then they can’t enter into the calculus of arguments and can’t improve our thinking. This is true even if those arguments or positions are manifestly unsound, because silencing them means that we lose a way of stressing the soundness of other arguments and positions (saying what’s wrong about something is often an indirect way of saying what’s right about something else).
  • Silencing more generally: political correctness isn’t the only form of silencing; pornography may silence women and hate speech may silence minorities; silencing means the absence of arguments and positions, and such an absence always harms the operation of the marketplace of ideas.
  • Polarization: polarization occurs when groups in society do not argue, convince or engage in public thinking but instead simply express claims motivated, not by the willingness to persuade, but by the need to show their identity or belonging; no one is convinced, people stay in their respective camps and these camps drift further apart because absent an exchange of reasons for beliefs, people start to see other groups as increasingly strange, alien and incomprehensible.
  • Biased media attention: a lot of the argumentation in the marketplace isn’t direct but gets channeled through media; if these media don’t take the ideal of the marketplace seriously and don’t function as stages for debate but instead play the game of polarization and present ongoing debates in a biased way, then there’s less debate.
  • Lack of education: the argumentation in the marketplace of ideas obviously requires a relatively high level of education; absent this education for the large majority, the marketplace can’t function since it depends on massive participation.
  • Psychological biases: even if general education levels are high, certain psychological biases can hinder the operation of the market; one example is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable; it’s obvious that this harms the operation of the marketplace.
  • Privacy issues: some people may be discouraged from entering the marketplace of ideas because they can’t handle exposure or the possible intrusions into their private lives that may follow from participation in the marketplace.
  • Etc.

Now, many of these market failures do look pretty serious and may discredit the whole notion of a marketplace of ideas, at least in the foreseeable future. However, most can be addressed in some ways. Media can be forced to present different viewpoints, hate speech can be curtailed etc. So there may be ways of rescuing the ideal of the marketplace of ideas both as an ideal in itself and as a justification of free speech. Much like the economic market in goods and services isn’t necessarily discredited by economic market failure and can be rescued by targeted government intervention.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (24): What is the Marketplace of Ideas?

I’ve often invoked the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to justify the right to free speech. (See these older posts). I think it’s useful to spell out in some more detail what the metaphor means, how far it goes and how it can bolster the right to free speech.

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

Exposing ideas to the test of the market doesn’t mean telling only your friends or your countrymen about them. Ideally, the market includes the whole of humanity; people who are close to you may share your biases and hence may not see the weakness of certain arguments or may not come up with the killer counter-argument. Another metaphor that can make this point somewhat clearer is the metaphor of perspectives: if you only look at a square from one side (or from one perspective) because no one told you that there’s another side or because in your group or culture it’s not common to suppose that there’s another side, you may not come to see that the square is actually a cube.

Without this massive and global participation of free speakers, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

This ultimately global nature of the marketplace of ideas gives us not only a justification of the equal right to free speech, but also a justification of the universal right to free speech.

So, the marketplace of ideas shouldn’t be understood in purely economic or literal terms, as a place where ideas are “traded” or “sold”, or “produced” and “consumed”; that wouldn’t make any sense. Of course, the result of the marketplace of ideas is that some people “trade” their old ideas for other ideas because the marketplace has proven that some ideas are hard to defend. In some sense of the word, ideas – and alternative ideas – are “exchanged”, as are arguments for and against ideas, but they aren’t exchanged in an economic sense. Also, one can argue that ideas have a cost: it may have been very hard and therefore costly to establish the set of arguments in favor of a winning idea (the marketplace of ideas is a tough place); or it may be costly in terms of status to hold on to an idea that has been thoroughly debunked in the marketplace. In the end, however, it’s never advisable to take metaphors too far or to use economic thinking where it doesn’t belong.

One important caveat: none of this should lead to the conclusion that massive support for an idea automatically turns this idea into a good one. It’s not because many people have decided that an idea is strongly supported by the best arguments and that other ideas have failed, that they are right. Maybe the marketplace of ideas hasn’t worked properly, because some of the prerequisites aren’t there (massive participation, strong speech rights, an educated citizenry etc.). Maybe the popular assessment of the balance of arguments rests on nothing more than prejudice. If you insist you can call this a “market failure”.

Here’s a quote that nicely illustrates my point – it’s about scientific discourse but it applies generally:

Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out. … [W]hen people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.

On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution. (source)

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (14): Does Confirmation Bias Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable. It’s a form of self-deception that we all suffer from, to a different extent, and that leads us to stick with our original beliefs rather than review them, even if a whole lot of contrary evidence is available. We just seem to be very good at ignoring it and focus on other, confirming evidence, even if the quality of this other evidence is dubious. The “stickiness” of beliefs resulting from confirmation bias is in turn an important cause of polarization of beliefs, the “dialogue of the deaf” style of political discourse, and “gladiator politics“.

Now, why is there confirmation bias? We all value consistency in our identity and self-image, and are afraid to acknowledge mistakes, especially regarding values or facts that are and have been for decades the foundation of our identity. We want to feel good about our “original” and fundamental views and affiliations. If our views are intertwined with our group affiliations, then the elements of group pride and loyalty also promote confirmation bias and our disregard of evidence that contradicts our views. It’s then not only our views that are at stake, but also our sense of belonging and the future of our group. Suppose evidence is found that Jesus Christ could never have lived. If we, as Christians, disregard this evidence, taint it or reinterpret it, then we are able to keep feeling good about ourselves and our previous thinking – we feel like consistent human beings with reasonable thinking powers and without a strong propensity to error – but we are also able to support the continued existence of our group, and that’s important for the wellbeing not only of ourselves but of millions of people. Our pride in our belonging, our identity and reasoning powers, as well as our loyalty to the other members of our group are powerful forces that produce confirmation bias. Patriotism and nationalism can also be seen in this light.

How does this relate to freedom of speech? This human right is often justified by and grounded in the argument that the public and equal appearance of a maximum number of viewpoints and arguments for and against something enhances the quality of thinking, much like the observance of a physical object from different angles yields a better understanding and knowledge of that object. It’s the famous concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where opinions have to enter the struggle of competition, review and criticism. These opinions are then either rejected or they come out better at the other end. The same idea justifies democracy because democracies – ideally – use freedom of speech to find and test the best policies and laws. Equal participation of a maximum number of citizens should then guarantee the same market processes. (More on that here, here and here).

That, of course, is an ideal. In reality, we see that even in free societies public discourse is often – but not always – far removed from the search for truth and improved thinking that should characterize it. Confirmation bias is one of the causes of the distance between reality and ideal because it inhibits the public examination of viewpoints and arguments. Propaganda, dysfunctional media, inept institutions, group pressure, vote buying, disregard of expert views, irrational behavior, deliberate polarization etc. are other causes. But here I’ll focus on confirmation bias.

At first glance, confirmation bias seems to undermine the whole “epistemological justification” – if I may call it that – of free speech and democracy. The more information there is (thanks to free speech), the more likely that people can just pick those pieces of information that confirm their biases, and I understand the word “information” in a broad sense, not just including facts but theories and arguments as well, however “wild” they are. So freedom of speech seems to be more like a bad thing, when viewed in this light.

However, in order to know if something is really bad you have to imagine what would happen if it went away. Without freedom of speech, the appearance of new and conflicting evidence is much less likely, and hence it’s more likely that people stick to their biased and pre-existing beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn’t promote confirmation bias, but doesn’t eliminate it either. People have to do that for themselves. However, freedom of speech gives people the tools to combat confirmation bias, if they are so inclined. And therefore freedom of speech is neither invalidated nor validated by confirmation bias.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (18): Stereotype Threat and Michel Foucault

There’s an interesting phenomenon called the stereotype threat, or, in other words, the threat of stereotypes about one’s capacity to succeed at something: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. (Some say that this is a type of confirmation bias, a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their existing preconceptions – they selectively collect new evidence, interpret evidence in a biased way or selectively recall information from memory. But I’m not convinced).

A typical example of stereotype threat manifests itself when a categorical group is told or shown that their group’s performance is worse than other groups before giving them a test; the test results are often abnormally lower than for control groups. For example, on a mathematics test, if you remind a group of girls that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it is likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have had they not been told. (source)

Here’s another example:

[Irwin] Katz found that Blacks were able to score better on an IQ test, if the test was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination. Blacks also scored higher on an IQ test when they believed the test would be compared to that of other blacks. Katz concluded that his subjects were thoroughly aware of the judgment of intellectual inferiority held by many white Americans. With little expectation of overruling this judgment, their motivation was low, and so were their scores. (source)

Indeed, that could be one explanation of the stereotype threat. Or it could simply be that people score worse because they are anxious about confirming the stereotype, and that this anxiety provokes stress because of the will to do well and prove that the prejudice is wrong. Ironically, they score worse: this anxiety and stress makes them less able to perform at normal levels. Or it could be something more sinister: something like internalization of oppression. People who suffered prejudice for centuries can perhaps convince themselves of their group’s inferiority. When this inferiority is made explicit beforehand, they are reminded of it, and somehow their recollected feelings of inferiority tweak their performance.

So inferior test results – compared to control groups who haven’t been exposed to explicit stereotypes before the test – can be caused by

  • a lack of motivation to disprove entrenched and difficult to change prejudices
  • stress and anxiety, or
  • recollected feelings of inferiority.

Or perhaps something else I’m not thinking of at the moment.

Some say that this is all crap, and an extreme example of the file drawer effect or publication bias: those studies that find positive results are more likely to be published, the others stay in the file drawer. I don’t know. I do think it’s true that whatever the reality of the stereotype threat, talk about it can have perverse effects: differences in test scores are considered to be wholly explained by the threat, and real education discrimination or differences in economic opportunities are removed from the picture. In that way, the stereotype threat functions as a solidifier of prejudice and stereotype, quite the opposite of what was intended.

Assuming the threat is real, Michel Foucault comes to mind. Foucault wrote about power and the different ways it operates. Rather than just force or the threat of force, he found “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving subjugation”. If you can convince people of their own inferiority you don’t have to do anything else. They will take themselves down. Or at least you may be able to convince people that it’s useless to struggle against prejudice because it’s so entrenched that you may as well adapt your behavior and confirm it. Also, Foucault’s claim that “power is everywhere” can be used here: power over people is even in their own minds. For Foucault,

power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done. … Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge. Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system—or discourse—ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable “truths”, come to define a particular way of seeing the world, and the particular way of life associated with such “truths” becomes normalized. (source)

The stereotype threat is a good example of a system that makes people behave in other ways, and of a belief system (based on prejudice) that becomes common knowledge, even among those targeted by the prejudice. Even they see it as unthinkable that their own inferiority is prejudice rather than knowledge.