#10 Psychedelics for sale in the marketplace of ideas

Of course, an idea comes to me (again) in the shower. The concept that struck me was John Stuart Mill’s “marketplace of ideas” from his 1859 text, On Liberty. In it, he compares people’s ideas as fighting for social acceptance and dominance over one another.

In a free market economy, products and services are for sale and the market decides which competitors win out over others. Customers choose the products they want to buy. Ideally, there is no coercion or suppression to buy this or that product; all products and wares are at the marketplace waiting to be exchanged for money or perhaps bartered goods. The point is that there is an exchange, a willingness to accept the seller’s offer, and to take that product or service into their home and use it. 

The marketplace of ideas, therefore, is Mill’s adaptation of the marketplace of products. I imagine an ancient Greek agora, or marketplace, where vendors put forth their products: vegetables, fruits, baked goods, meats, olive oil, wine, and tools. It’s loud, busy, competitive. There are hagglers and tricksters, deals being made, lots of exchanging between hands. Someone buys kilos of apples for their apple sauce company, liters of milk to produce butter for their village, and any number of ways these raw products can be converted into something else, to a new product entirely. 

Let’s now talk about ideas. In this agora, there are also people on their soapboxes who gather crowds around them. The proselytizers sell their ideas, and for argument’s sake to keep this analogy simple, let’s say these ideas are free. They’re free. You can either agree or disagree, subscribe to or reject that which the soapboxers spout from their mouths, stay a while longer or leave immediately. One person might be talking about the virtues of Apollo and why one should visit his temple to make an offering. Another about how the Persians will be back and more taxes should be raised to increase naval and city defenses. Ideas compete with each other. Those who yell loudest, polluting the air with guttural, meaning-laced noises, will by default enter the minds of those close by. The person with the better ideas might not yell as loud or even stand on a soapbox. He or she might be homeless (e.g. Diogenes the Cynic), the appearance of whom might dissuade people from taking s/he seriously. 

I believe that the people who yell loudest, have the bigger soapbox, the best microphone, the more influential friends, the ability to gather a crowd by any means (e.g. seems/is trustworthy; offers free lunches in exchange to listen to them; is attractive; etc.), will win; that is to say, more people will listen to their ideas (even if they are bad ideas) and the loud soapboxer will have a higher conversion rate of people subscribing to his/her ideas than people that attract smaller crowds, regardless whether the quieter soapboxer’s ideas are better. The quieter soapboxer might be on the right side of history, but that doesn’t matter, at least in the short term. Interestingly though, if the quieter soapboxer continues selling, believes in his/her message, particularly in contrast to the louder soapboxer’s message, s/he will gain followers after the crowds have sampled the louder soapboxer’s ideas for a while. The truth always wins, it always overcomes. Once the loud soapboxer has the ear of the many, s/he may resort to violence, coercion, and/or oppression to keep his/her congress in check. Once this happens, people will question the status quo that everyone bought into, likely not even them for they were born into such a system, it was their parents or grandparents’ generation. In search for alternatives, some people are willing to listen to the soft soapboxer’s ideas and might even give them a try, at least quietly or in private. 

Those who yell loudest or appeal to fear or even project their fear on others are the most insecure; those who speak more softly, or rather we can say speak more normally, logically, reasonably, are most confident in their message and beliefs. We could think of idea adoption as cyclical or pendulum-like, constantly swinging its bob back and forth until gravity takes effect and the pendulum rod eventually centers. Irrational arguments, especially based on emotion, will cause people to gravitate toward their rational counterparts. It is at this point when the softer soapboxer’s ideas and his/her followers will gain traction in the marketplace of ideas. 

Mill, J. S. (2002/1859). On Liberty. Dover Publications. 

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