The marketplace of ideas has crashed

Len Niehoff

In a Supreme Court opinion written almost 100 years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained how freedom of speech contributes to our political process.

Holmes argued that our democracy depends upon a “free trade in ideas.” This allows different views to compete and for the better ideas to prevail. As Holmes put it, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

This “marketplace of ideas” theory has influenced political thought for decades. But it rests upon certain assumptions, all of which turned out to be wrong in 2016.

One of those assumptions is that people will receive information in quantities they can manage. But this election cycle we have all been awash in more information and misinformation than a human being can process.

Psychologists tell us that under these circumstances we do the easy thing: we focus on “information” that confirms what we already think.

The marketplace of ideas theory also assumes that we will be able to sort reliable information from unreliable. But 2016 revealed that this also no longer holds true.

Our inability to tell reliable from unreliable information gave both major party candidates license to play with the truth, so they did. Poltifact, which fact-checks statements made by political candidates, assessed 19 percent of President-elect Donald Trump’s evaluated statements as mostly false, 34 percent as false, and 17 percent as what it calls “pants on fire” false.

The site evaluated 14 percent of Hillary Clinton’s statements as mostly false, 10 percent as false, and only 7 percent as “pants on fire” false.

If this is right, and if the reportedly more truthful of our two major candidates was making false statements to us almost a third of the time, then we have a serious problem. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that we have now entered a "post-factual" or "post-truth" political stage in our country’s history.

The marketplace of ideas theory also assumes that we care about the truth. But an election may have little to do with what is factually right or wrong.

The 2016 election may be a case in point. It has been argued that, on both sides, this election had much more to do with feelings instead of facts.

Finally, the marketplace of ideas theory assumes that all ideas will have a chance to compete. But in 2016 the barriers to entry into this market became obvious.

We conducted three presidential debates without a moderator asking one question about climate change. Or consider this: an estimated 1.6 million American children are homeless, but we heard almost nothing about this national tragedy.

Responsibility for addressing these problems begins with each of us. We need to expect better of ourselves and of everyone around us.

We need to stop using easy labels like “politically correct” and “fascist” and the like. A label is not an argument. It is just lazy thinking, if it is thinking at all.

Facts need to matter to us. We need to care about the truth and to invest the time and energy it takes to find it.

And we need to do all of this with respect, civility, and the humble recognition that we might be wrong.

Justice Holmes wrote that this “is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” And so it is.

Len Niehoff is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.