Quote of the Day: Bartley on the Marketplace of Ideas
| 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.