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Civilizing the Marketplace of Ideas

CAMBRIDGE – “When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths,” US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a famous dissenting opinion in 1919, “they may come to believe…that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of 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.”

Like any market, however, the marketplace of ideas needs regulation: in particular, its participants should be bound by norms of honesty, humility, and civility. Moreover, every idea-trader should adhere to these principles.

Of course, politicians through the ages have polluted the marketplace of ideas with invective. But in American politics, surprisingly, there has been progress. According to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, there has been less incivility in Congress in recent years than in the 1990’s or the 1940’s. Republican Senator Ted Cruz was widely condemned for his aggressive questioning of incoming Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel back in January. But casting aspersions on a nominee’s patriotism was the norm in the McCarthy era; it is less common today.

Academia, by contrast, appears to be moving in the opposite direction. A “social science” like economics is supposed to be free of partisan vitriol. Yet economists now routinely stoop to ad hominem attacks and inflammatory polemics.