Competing in the Marketplace of Ideas

Competing in the Marketplace of Ideas


“The state is a fictional entity!” proclaimed the insistent libertarian to the incredulous statist. “You can’t touch it, you can’t see it, and yet everybody goes around acting like it has authority from on high!”


“Well, governments sure seem to have a lot of impact in world, given the fact that they don’t actually exist.” replied the statist.

How can something that doesn’t exist have such a profound effect on the world? How can we fight against something that doesn’t actually exist? If it doesn’t exist, why are we fighting against it in the first place?

Governments, like businesses, aren’t objects that exist in reality. Land is real. Buildings are real. Individual people are real. Organizations and institutions, however, only exist to the extent that people think they do. A business is an incredible phenomenon that only happens if customers, employees, managers, external financiers, and countless others simultaneously coordinate their behaviors based on a shared set of ideas. Sometimes these amazing patterns of collective human behavior warrant labels, so we refer to them as businesses, clubs, communities, governments, etc. These organizations, however, exist only as projections of conditions in the marketplace of ideas. Government is nothing more than the projection of a large number of people accepting the idea that humans are incapable of managing their own affairs and that certain people must be allowed to violently enforce rules.

The concept of a marketplace of ideas was first developed by the English poet John Milton and was advanced by John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. introduced the term into modern American jurisprudence in his dissent in Abrams v. United States. The majority upheld a law criminalizing speech intended to hinder the progress of the war against Germany by curtailing the production of necessary materials. In his frequently quoted dissent, Holmes stated:

“When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test for truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market; and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

Much of the legal discussion of the market “analogy” has revolved around the protections described in First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I assert that no analogy is needed. The marketplace of ideas is as much a market as any other and it always has been. Laissez-faire is the standard in this market as its limits are imposed not by arbitrary violence, but by human neurology. The only barriers to entry in this market are the inability to think and the inability to communicate. As external barriers to communication crumble in the digital age, barriers to entry in the marketplace of ideas, like governments, only exist if you believe they do.

In the marketplace of ideas, it is not physical goods or services that are exchanged, but ideologies, philosophies, business propositions, advice, belief structures, and even identities. Sometimes real-world demonstrations of the consequences of an idea are needed as a proof of concept to make an ideological sale. In this market, it is not the state that we wish to defeat, but the ideological product that gives it life: statism. Ideas cannot be defeated by violent revolution (unless of course you kill everyone who entertains a certain idea). Like other market goods, inferior ideas are slowly marginalized and rendered obsolete as better ideas gain market share through innovative product development and aggressive marketing. Libertarianism is our product. It has already undergone significant product development by great individuals like John Locke, Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard. Our product continues to be improved by a growing number of thinkers today. Libertarian infighting? Sounds like aggressive product development to me.

Like all free markets, success in the marketplace of ideas is not guaranteed and only comes through hard work, careful market analysis, and constant preparation to seize opportunities. The free market we’ve all been waiting for is here and the purveyors of statism have far too much market share. The only question is how to relieve them of it.

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Max Hill

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