11 November 2014

Uncommon Commentary #434: Free Ideas Are Often Worth the Price

I don’t recall having heard the term “marketplace of ideas” until just a few years ago, when it seems to have either been coined or become more popular than before.  To give two recent examples: Judge Andrew Napolitano wrote “History teaches that the remedy for tasteless speech is not government repression -- it is more speech.  In a free society, when the marketplace of ideas is open and unfettered, the truth is obvious”; and former NYC Mayor Giuliani said, shortly afterward, “We recognize that people differ and that the First Amendment gives us the answer: the marketplace of ideas.”
There’s no question that in actual marketplaces, where tangible commodities are sold, superior products generally out-compete inferior ones as long as these non-metaphorical marketplaces are spared gratuitous interference by the government.  The notion that free-market principles apply not only to trade but also to the sphere of public opinion, which notion Judge Napolitano and others apparently take for granted, is, however, very dubious.  What I think history really teaches is that bad ideas are at least as popular as good ones, and that even when “the truth is obvious”, people often spurn it for falsehood; or, to employ a phrase from the Bible, they prefer darkness to light. (If the Judge is right, why is this country in the mess that it is now?  Why are such patently bad ideas as acceptance of unwed motherhood, or that of same-sex marriage, in the ascendant?)
In my opinion, placing confidence in the concept of a “marketplace of ideas” fails to counteract the libertarian and the leftist in their conceit that government ought to make no attempt to elevate public morality.  I don’t advocate a kind of Christian totalitarianism, but, as the ongoing degeneration of our culture ought to make evident, we need much more moral censorship than we presently have.  Leaders of a Christian country (or, like ours, one that used to be Christian) must understand that the civil power, owing its authority to God (Romans 13:1), has an obligation to defend and to promote godly ideas, even if those ideas don’t sell as well as the sinful ones.