Quote of the Day: Bartley on the Marketplace of Ideas

25 February 2010 at 12:44 am 7 comments

| Peter Klein |

I happened to be looking today through Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth by W. W. Bartley, III, who passed away shortly after this book was published. Bartley, a student and colleague of Karl Popper and the Founding Editor of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, was a brilliant and penetrating thinker whose work is not very well known outside of a few  professional circles. Unfathomed Knowledge, a book about higher education (with the subtitle “On Universities and the Wealth of Nations”), was written for a general audience and is full of insights about the crazy business of academia. Here’s one passage:

Analogies have often been drawn between a free market in ideas and free markets in goods and services. Yet intellectuals tend to dislike such comparisons. They see the free market in ideas as something on a higher plane, qualitatively different from free markets in commodities and the like. Many of them indeed even hate the marketplace as traditionally conceived, and would want nothing to do, even analogically, with a free market in coal, housing, fish, or petroleum.

Take a few examples. Several scholars, including Edward Shils, of the University of Chicago, strongly protested the analogy when it was drawn by Michael Polanyi at the Congress for Cultural Freedom. One called Polanyi’s comparison between free markets in goods and in ideas “clever but questionable” in that a man who offers commodities in the free market “is not bound by anything” whereas in science one is bound to an objective method. Shils added that members of the scientific community, by contrast to businessmen and traders, act in accordance with overriding standards, a “common law” above and beyond individuals.

Such a position does not withstand examination. Someone offering commodities in a market — far from being “not bound by anything” — is governed by enforceable law relating to fraud, credit, contract and such like. The analogy does have limits, but of a different sort: in the marketplace of ideas, fraud, plagiarism, theft, false advertising (including false claims to expertise and the whole mystique of expertise), “conspiracies of silence,” casual slander and libel, breach of contract, deceit of all sorts are more common than in business — simply because there are few readily enforceable penalties against offenders, whereas “whistle-blowers” are severely punished. This is so especially in those areas (the humanities, social sciences, the arts — as opposed to the profitable fields) where the transaction costs of enforcing such things as property rights, priority claims, or even accurate report5ing usually outweigh the advantage in doing so, and where the transaction costs of trying to defend oneself against such things as slander are prohibitive.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Gerard  |  25 February 2010 at 10:22 am

    This is the theme of the new Louis Menand book. I picked it up mostly because I love his NYer pieces, but haven’t gotten to that part of the stack yet. .

  • 2. David Hoopes  |  25 February 2010 at 11:42 am

    This is great Peter. Nice post.

    http://organizationsandmarkets.com/2007/11/26/teaching-social-responsibility/

  • 3. Rafe Champion  |  25 February 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Bartley was a prolific writer, and also a remarkably productive editor (see the three volumes of The Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery) and on top of that he did two remarkable biographies which involved a lot of detailed and original research (Wittgenstein and Werner Erhard, founder of est).

    He attracted trouble. His Wittgenstein book prompted a letter-writing campaign by friends of Witt, trying to make him unemployable in Britain. Some adverse comments on Popper’s demarction principle triggered an exchange of unpleasantries followed by 12 years of non-communication. A chapter that he contributed to a collection on Popper prompted legal action by an Oxbridge academic (who was described as incompetent) resulting in withdrawal of the English edition. The action failed in the US because the laws are less friendly to litigants, possibly also because there was time to edit the offending sentence, so you can find the Humanities Press edition of “In Pursuit of Truth” ed Paul Levinson. This is the chapter by Bartley

    http://www.the-rathouse.com/In_Pursuit_of_Truth_-_Popperian_Harvest.pdf

    Here you can find a heap of links to papers by Bartley and about him. http://www.the-rathouse.com/writingsonbartley.html

  • 4. Paul Levinson  |  1 March 2010 at 12:33 am

    Further to Rafe’s account:

    The British publisher of In Pursuit of Truth – Harvester – indeed withdrew their edition. I was furious, and determined to do my best to make sure this did not happen in America.

    I spoke to the American publisher, Humanities, and encouraged a series a conversations with Bartley. New language was agreed upon by Bartley and the publisher – language which, in my view at least, made the same point as the original, without the word “incompetent”. The publisher tipped in a replacement page, and the book was saved.

    Bartley was less than happy with me – he might have preferred the book being withdrawn in America, too, on the principle of not changing his wording. I did not find his wording offensive, and told both British and American publishers the same. But I preferred saving the book and Bartley’s splendid essay, over the principle of not changing the wording. I felt, and still believe, that world of ideas was better served by this course of action.

  • 5. Rafe Champion  |  1 March 2010 at 2:02 am

    Bartley’s stance was wilful and self-mutilating. It would have been absurd to sacrifice a wonderful collection of papers for the sake of…what?
    Leaving the word “incompetent” in the piece might have made him feel good but who could claim that it added to the value of his paper which is probably the pick of a very good collection.

  • 6. In The Marketplace of Ideas….. « A Reasonable Life  |  6 September 2010 at 11:42 am

    […] Someone offering commodities in a market — far from being “not bound by anything” — is governed by enforceable law relating to fraud, credit, contract and such like. The analogy does have limits, but of a different sort: in the marketplace of ideas, fraud, plagiarism, theft, false advertising (including false claims to expertise and the whole mystique of expertise), “conspiracies of silence,” casual slander and libel, breach of contract, deceit of all sorts are more common than in business — simply because there are few readily enforceable penalties against offenders, whereas “whistle-blowers” are severely punished.”  – W.W. Bartley, III (Unfathomable Knowledge) (HT to Peter Klein at Organizations and Markets) […]

  • 7. In The Marketplace of Ideas….. | Harry's Woodshed  |  18 December 2010 at 12:26 pm

    […] Someone offering commodities in a market — far from being “not bound by anything” — is governed by enforceable law relating to fraud, credit, contract and such like. The analogy does have limits, but of a different sort: in the marketplace of ideas, fraud, plagiarism, theft, false advertising (including false claims to expertise and the whole mystique of expertise), “conspiracies of silence,” casual slander and libel, breach of contract, deceit of all sorts are more common than in business — simply because there are few readily enforceable penalties against offenders, whereas “whistle-blowers” are severely punished.”  – W.W. Bartley, III (Unfathomable Knowledge) (HT to Peter Klein at Organizations and Markets) […]

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