Sunday, 29 April 2012

Is Trade in Ideas Free?: Interrogating the 'Marketplace for Ideas'

Freedom of expression is often analogised to a marketplace, as if there are traders in 'ideas' that can freely trade with each other their religious, political, analytical or even banal gossipy ideas. This idea isn't especially new- it is often traced to Oliver Wendell Holmes, but in reality many of the ideas of John Milton, Thomas Paine or even Plato could be recast as a 'marketplace for ideas'. The problem is that this marketplace is in no way free and much of the time instead of 'ideas' being traded in what is really traded is loyalty, either corporate or political. A few specific flaws are worth discussing here in detail: 1) what is being traded and why are loyalties likely to create monopolisation, 2) markets are in reality institutions which constrain the scope of ideas that are discussed, 3) information does not always make for better decisions and 4) individuals are not all rational truth-seekers.

What is being traded?: A Marketplace for Loyalties?
Monroe Price theorised that any government or 'power holder' will seek to monopolise the media in order to control the production of 'identity' as a kind of good with loyalty as the price of identity. As Price illustrates "The buyers are citizens, subjects, nationals, consumers—recipients of packages of information, propaganda, advertisements, drama, and news propounded by the media. The consumer 'pays' for one set of identities or another in several ways that, together, we call loyalty or citizenship". Price theorised that this would lead state-owned media to attempt to maintain a monopoly over the media because any competition over ideas would lead to the weakening over control over identity and thus political structures. The problem with this market is Price's conclusion that breaking up state-owned monopolies would lead to a liberalisation of this market.

With the rise of a new generation of press barons, in particular the ever-present Rupert Murdoch and his vast News Corporation the idea of media as separate from the 'power holders' has become very tenuous indeed. The media now have the incentive (because jingoistic prose often sell best) or at least the power to  create and shape identity, meaning they don't just trade in writing or opinion- they trade in loyalty. The consequence of this is that there is scope for media regulation when power over different channels gives a media proprietor to reinforce their conception of loyalty across multiple platforms (such regulation might include cross-media ownership laws, for example). It is also an argument for more closely restricting how the media accesses government and the role of media as lobbyists for corporate or their own interests. Media companies have (sometimes successfully attempted) to monopolise particular media markets- I would claim not just for profit-related reasons but also for ideological reasons (witness The Australian being run at a loss but being hugely powerful over the cognoscenti in Australia).

Institutional Constraints
The idea that the marketplace for ideas is 'free' is absurd: in reality, the availability of quality substitutes for mainstream media in most countries is low and the barriers to entry are high (it is very expensive to run a media company and most small ventures fail). This market is an institution like any other, as Oliver North noted acting like 'humanly devised constraints that constrain society'. 

Why is this important here? Libertarians either implicitly or explicitly assume that the marketplace for ideas will contain the full scope of ideas so a fair contest can occur- which is clearly not the case here. It is particularly dire in Australia, which has very high media concentration (Ray Finkelstein covers this point much better than I can in the media inquiry-, especially see p. 59-60). 

Ideas may succeed not because of their truth valency but instead just because of how they are packaged by an increasingly unipolar media industry or indeed just because of whether they get aired at all. The cursory debates over drug legalisation and euthanasia in Australia are evidence of this- where the government, opposition and Murdoch empire conspire to dismiss a viewpoint it will never get any hearing at all.

Information: Not always a 'social good'
It is often claimed that more information always makes for better decisions- by economists, political scientists, information theorists or even government agencies ('if only people knew that'...). The truth is rather more complicated- in low information environments in particular, small pieces of information that ill-informed actors get from the media may lead to incredibly poor decision-making. 

An example of such a bias is the 'anchoring bias' where even completely irrelevant information can be relied on heavily to make a decision when the actor hasn't got much time or other information to consider. Daniel Ariely found in a seminal behavioural economics study that if you get audience members to write down the last two digits of their social security numbers before valuing items that they don't know the value of- (wine, chocolate, computers etc.) that you will get much higher valuations (60-120% higher) for numbers between 80-99 when compared to low numbers i.e. 0-19. How is this relevant to the media? Highly gossipy reporting or just very selective reporting may actually make consumers less informed about an issue- Fox News is notorious for this in particular. 

Our Readers are Rational? Really?
John Hartigan in particular loves to pine that his readers are fully capable of making up their own minds. Apart from the aforementioned problem of media concentration, this is also unlikely because of time and cognitive constraints that mean that consumers tend to 'satisfice', that is basically to pick a goodish alternative instead of optimising their choice over all possible choices. This means that even in a better functioning market consumers might well just stay with the default option and only hear one opinion (which is also cognitively convenient- no one wants to fall into the trap of cognitive dissonance, this can be physically painful to one's brain). Behavioural economics and social psychology have done a very good job at showing that Homo oeconomicus is largely bunk- humans are bad at being rational choosers and quite bad at processing information, often.

Conclusion: Consequences?
Freedom of expression is an important right, indeed indispensable to our democracy. But media companies should not getting away with being much less regulated than other industries under the cloak of the 'marketplace for ideas'. This metaphor is deeply flawed and damages the discussion around media regulation by making a completely free media a sacred cow. 

Dan Gibbons is a 3rd year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

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