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The Myth of the “Marketplace of Ideas” on Campus

Conservative speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray are rewarded for provocation, not quality of thought.

Getty Images, Flickr/gageskidmore

The latest campus speech controversy erupted last week at Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in Vermont, where protesters shouted down and chased off invited speaker Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute whom the Southern Poverty Law Center deems a white nationalist. “The demonstrations began conventionally enough, with several hundred organized protesters packed into a lecture hall Thursday, chanting and holding signs,” The Washington Post reported. “They ended with Murray being forced to move his lecture and later being surrounded by an unruly mob made up of students and ‘outside agitators’ as he tried to leave campus.”

That this incident turned physical has provided the perfect metaphor for conservatives who have long characterized college students as illiberal “snowflakes” who want to silence anyone they disagree with. Eugene Volokh, who blogs at the Post, called it “[a]nother sad day of brown-shirted thuggery at our nation’s academic institutions.” “It was not, apparently, enough to stop Murray from expounding on his views,’ Andrew Stuttaford wrote at National Review. “He had, in addition, to be punished for them.” And Murray himself, in a post at AEI about the incident, worried that “the intellectual thugs will take over many campuses,” adding, “A campus where a majority of students are fearful to speak openly because they know a minority will jump on them is no longer an intellectually free campus in any meaningful sense.

For too long this Manichean conservative narrative, even when reasonably applied, has stood in the way of a more challenging set of questions about free speech on campus: Is there really a “marketplace of ideas,” and does it actually work?

Campus speaker invitations and disinvitations reflect a curious paradox. On one hand, there’s clearly a market for speakers for bestselling authors like Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart writer and prolific campus provocateur. On the other hand, Murray was met with disinvitation attempts in 2014 and 2016 before he was shouted down last week at Middlebury, reflecting student awareness that the work for which Murray is best known—1994’s The Bell Curve, which was excerpted in the New Republic alongside criticism of it—has been largely discredited among social scientists. Milo accounted for 14 of all 46 disinvitations by students in 2016, reflecting simultaneously his desirability and undesirability among students.

The problem, then, is that the “marketplace of ideas” is a misleading metaphor for what’s really happening with campus speakers. Such a “marketplace” does a poor job of signaling and rewarding quality speech and valuable ideas, exemplified by the enthusiasm with which students embrace controversy over substance. And unlike the marketplace for material goods—in which it’s a boon, not a problem, for some loyal consumers to sustain Oreos cookies while others buy Hydrox—the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor promises something more than “to each her own.”

That is, the libertarian argument for the marketplace of ideas rests on the premise that if, as Mao Zedong put it, we let “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” the best ideas will emerge triumphant and the lousy and bigoted ones will fall away into obscurity. The reality, however, is that the more strenuously the marketplace rejects the ideas of speakers like Murray, the more valuable such speakers become on account of their rejection. The marketplace of ideas can behave more like a marketplace of controversy in which we perpetually re-litigate discredited ideas precisely because they’re unpopular.

This tendency follows from a logic—noble in spirit—that this marketplace may sometimes wrongly reject a gem of an idea, thus we should guard against populism when choosing which ideas should have a platform. But in so many cases—as with Murray, Yiannopoulos, Suzanne Venker, John Deryshire, and others—the ideas on offer have powerful platforms already. The “hidden gem” theory of neglected ideas doesn’t quite apply to speakers with bestselling books, lucrative speaking tours, and ample mass media access.

The outsized power of controversy within the marketplace may be cause to avoid interrupting and shouting down speakers. Indeed, while I think disinvitation is the prerogative of any institution with autonomy over its platforms and duty to provide the highest possible quality speakers across the political spectrum, I don’t think it’s smart to shout down people who are already there. Better for those opposed to hearing the speaker to host a separate event and let diminished numbers at the main event speak to the diminished status of bad ideas. Research indicates further that peaceful, civil resistance is more effective than violent resistance. Nevertheless, these matters of tact and strategy shouldn’t overshadow the fact that even when students protest in loud, disruptive, and violent ways, they’re offering an important signal in the marketplace that they don’t want these speakers on campus.

The anti-P.C. assumption has been that students don’t want speakers like Murray or Yiannopoulos because they can’t handle, need protection from, or have no counterargument for opposing ideas. Put aside the fact that so-called “snowflakes” watch Game of Thrones, Bill Burr, and South Park in their free time, and thus routinely expose themselves to narratives and jokes about rape, incest, castration, misogyny, and racism, as well as jokes about politically correct college students. Students oppose Murray because they’re aware of his widely publicized arguments about the genetic inferiority of certain races of humans. Framing such rejection as either an inability to be confronted with different views, or an unfair unwillingness to hear the other side out, is disingenuous on both counts, given that student opposition is actually rooted in knowledge of the very public arguments they oppose (whether Murray, who was ostensibly invited to Middlebury to talk about newer work, should have to carry the albatross of The Bell Curve with him every time he writes and speaks about new ideas is a relevant question for another column).

The thornier question is why student opposition from the left suddenly doesn’t count as a valuable signal within the marketplace. This question gets to the heart of the problem with the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor. Instead of taking vocal opposition to certain ideas, or speaker disinvitations, as the marketplace self-correcting as marketplaces should do, we take left-wing opposition to the likes of Murray and Yiannopoulos as an illiberal gesture. On the contrary, this libertarian metaphor necessitates contestation and rejection for the metaphor to work.

This is why anti-P.C. refusal to take left-wing students’ protests seriously as a market signal is either a disingenuous stance or, as I’ve argued previously, an authoritarian one. If it’s disingenuous, it’s because protest speech isn’t being truly countenanced, based on the specious notion that left-wing student disapproval can only come from fragility or petulance rather than knowledgeable, rational opposition. And if the anti-P.C. position is authoritarian, it’s because it involves overriding clear market rejection of certain ideas, refusing to let the market assign low value to ideas that campus conservatives want to hear.

As this last scenario suggests, the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor is indeed flawed, because you simply can’t have competition for the best ideas when the marketplace either screens out all speakers in the political “minority” (the conservative accusation) or assigns high value to low-value ideas simply because they’re controversial and have the potential to punish the left. The failure of this framework poses serious questions for anti-P.C. libertarians. Are these critics willing to turn higher education over to a Wild West–style marketplace, even if that marketplace produces a relatively high number of low-value conservative speakers? And are they comfortable trotting out the “marketplace of ideas” argument to defend low-value conservative speakers, as if the bare fact that the marketplace demanded them is a sign of their intellectual value?

Indeed, the “marketplace” is an elegant metaphor that doesn’t always behave as it does in our hopes and dreams. In reality, the marketplace of ideas is inextricable from the actual marketplace, which rewards people like Yiannopoulos with speaking fees and book sales not for the quality of his ideas but for the appeal of his performance. Even Murray, whom I believe does his scholarship in good faith, would have to admit that iconoclasm drives his reputation and book sales more than the superior quality of his work as a social scientist (however we rate that quality). Ultimately, the “marketplace of ideas” is a confused argument that promises the triumph of good ideas while delivering ordinary and unproductive provocation.