Rousseau’s Contrarian View of the Marketplace of Ideas

The idea of the “marketplace of ideas” in which truth wins out through competition with error has a strong tradition in the U.S. Suggested in nascent form by Milton and Mill, US Supreme Court decisions appeal to it in free speech decisions, and it frequently appears in commentary and everyday conversations. It continues to hold axiomatic status in the U.S., at least outside of a set of college campuses.

Justice Holmes in his famous Abrams’ dissent styles the claim that

when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct 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 . . .[1]

So, too, in On Liberty, J.S. Mill argues that “silencing the expression of an opinion” robs humanity:

If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.[2]

Both appeal to a social process in which truth wins out in a competitive process with falsehood.

While preceding Mill by a century, and Holmes by more than a century hand a half, in his (quite curious) First Discourse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau advances much the opposite claim to Mill, Holmes, and others. While he focuses his discussion on “arts and sciences,” his argument would seem to engage the implicit social process of the Millian postulate more generally:

How many errors, a thousand times more dangerous than the truth is useful, must be surmounted in order to reach the truth? The disadvantage is evident, for falsity is susceptible of infinite combinations, whereas truth has only one form. Besides, who seeks it sincerely? Even with the best intentions, by what signs is one certain to recognize it? In this multitude of different opinions, what will be our one criterium in order to judge it properly?[3]

Rousseau suggests several lines of thought at odds with the Millian claim. First, he hints the sheer volume of mistaken ideas can drown out good ideas. In a flood of babble, how can one discern the good among the bad? Rousseau’s view suggests a counter analogy of sorts in the form of an epistemological Gresham’s law: As bad money drives out good money in the actual marketplace, perhaps bad ideas drive out good ideas in the market place of ideas. Or perhaps we could express it in a weaker form, that bad ideas simply drown out good ideas.

Secondly, Rousseau hints at a more pessimistic anthropology than Mill & etc. “Who seek [the truth] sincerely,” he asks? The Millian postulate assumes that people naturally, even if slowly and gradually, accept the true, that we seek the truth sincerely. Rousseau pushes on the anthropology implicit in the Millian view. He advances a darker anthropology throughout his First Discourse. I don’t know that it would be accurate to term it an Augustinian anthropology. But if we were skeptical whether humans indeed were naturally attracted to truth – instead being those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” as Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans – perhaps a marketplace of ideas would lead to a Gresham-like outcome in which truth gets buried by falsehood rather than one in which truth wins out.

Finally, then, Rousseau asks whether and how people recognize the truth even if we seek for it sincerely. How do we judge whether we arrive at the truth if in fact we do not already know the truth? But if we already know the truth, then on the terms of the Millian perspective itself it need not be uncovered through the competitive process of the marketplace of ideas. If we in fact don’t know the truth, then how do we know it is increasingly approximated by the process the view advances?

Rousseau’s claims inverts Millian claims at critical points. Rousseau’s pessimistic views of humanity and the sociology of knowledge clash distinctly with the optimism of the Millian view.

Yet even if we were to accept Rousseau’s view, and reject the Millian view that competition in the marketplace of ideas leads to the success of truth, it wouldn’t seem to provide any greater warrant for censorship than the Millian view itself. After all, human magistrates have no greater claim to perceiving the truth than anyone else in Rousseau’s argument. So what justification would there be to allow a magistrate to privilege one opinion over another; to allow one falsehood to impose on all the other falsehoods? A pessimistic portrait to be sure – I guess it would be “let a thousand weeds fester” rather than “let a thousand flowers bloom” – but one that does not justify censorship despite rejecting the assumptions of the Millian view.

In any event, Rousseau’s argument provides us with a contrarian counterpoint to the concept of the marketplace of ideas, and so provides a useful opportunity to muse a little more deeply on why we think truth naturally wins out in competition with error.

[1] Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919)

[2] The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill (Modern Library Classics, 2002): On Liberty, 19.

[3] The Major Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (University of Chicago Press, 2012): Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, 24.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on July 21, 2017 at 09:25:39 am

Gee whiz! - and here I was thinking that today's little social justice warriors did not study history or political philosophy. Well, apparently they HAVE studied Rousseau.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on July 21, 2017 at 10:39:25 am

"After all, human magistrates have no greater claim to perceiving the truth than anyone else in Rousseau’s argument."

But they are tasked with preserving civil society, and so have a perfect right to censor whatever seriously threatens it.

read full comment
Image of Stephen Dedalus
Stephen Dedalus
on July 21, 2017 at 13:27:34 pm

Rogers bores us with yet another undergraduate level invitation to ruminate on what what a bunch of high Whig former Presbyterian Grandees of the Shaftsbury set were nattering about on the eve of the Glorious Revolution. This is abstract philosophy and has nothing the reality of either government or a civil society.

This is the kind of nonsense the Supreme Court loved to indulge in the mid-20th C. and that has given us a constitution with no firm mooring in reality.

The only period of unrestricted free speech in the Anglo-sphere I know of prior to the bizarre decision the Supreme Court in Miller v. California (1973) was the period 1642-49 when the Stationers Company's authority to regulate the publication of written material lapsed during the English Civil War. Then, free speech was characterized by the predictably vituperative and invective polemics between the reactionary monarchists, the upper class parliamentarians, the religiously conservative Presbyterians and the radical Independents. Then free speech was a synonym for political propaganda and, as if to hammer the point home, the radical republican New Model Army added a printing press to its artillery train. Thus, when the New Model was bombarding royalist strongholds it was also bombarding the surrounding citizenry with Leveller propaganda.

Certainly, all this was well known to Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and all of the other framers of the constitutions of the several states and the federal government and none of them thought that free speech was anything more than a liberty that could be restricted by the states under the general police power. That is why Brandies felt compelled to up hold the state in Whitney v. California (1927). That is also why states like Massachusetts had always had the discretion to ban books thought to be harmful to public morals.

This abstract attachment to free speech has not served us particularly well unless one's notion of the "Truth" is thought to be vindicated on Pornhub.

read full comment
Image of EK
on July 22, 2017 at 00:20:00 am

All of this seems rather wide of the mark. As a PhD in political science, I enjoyed Prof. Rogers's post and found it interesting. In any case, why the insult at the beginning of your response? It doesn't exactly encourage readers to stay with you.

read full comment
Image of David B. Frisk
David B. Frisk
on July 22, 2017 at 08:38:12 am

"But they are tasked with preserving civil society, and so have a perfect right to censor whatever seriously threatens it."

But most of what is censored isn't for public safety reasons. For instance, when a public school adopts uniforms, and therefore prevents people from wearing jeans, they are not decreasing the city's homicide rate--nor did banning Joyce's Ulysses lower the crime rate anymore than banning tobacco advertisements lead to less crime--if anything, the US drug war has led to much higher crime rates in Mexico than most of the rest of the world has ever seen.

read full comment
Image of Don't hide behind a fake safety-rationale
Don't hide behind a fake safety-rationale
on July 22, 2017 at 09:29:06 am

Because testing the limits of free speech and expression after Miller v. California was an interesting experiment but the results have been very disappointing and have not served the public interest very well.

The mid-20th C. Supreme Court consistently conflated liberties such as speech and religion that can be conditional under the general police power of the states with a national constitutional right that is moderated by the Federal government.

read full comment
Image of EK
on July 23, 2017 at 15:44:07 pm

Rousseau's observations are good from a loosely framed epistemological point of view. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. Ideas only exist in the heads of individual persons, and for that reason not only do the "best" ideas but very often the worst ideas--in terms of personal and social liberty, such as Rousseau's ideology of the state--come out on top. The most determined and especially most ruthless of the holders of power-oriented ideologies will win out--at least until they self-destruct. Hayek understood what a cursory study of revolutions reveals.

read full comment
Image of Tom
on July 25, 2017 at 08:15:17 am

rep john lewis civil rights

Rousseau’s Contrarian View of the Marketplace of Ideas - Online Library of Law & Liberty

read full comment
Image of rep john lewis civil rights
rep john lewis civil rights
on July 25, 2017 at 20:23:41 pm

Thank you for another thoughtful pondering on this public scratchpad of ideas.

I don't think "we" seek out truth in general. There really isn't a "we." Some people value one thing. Some, another. "We" is a bunch of individuals, each seeking different things.

Collectively we add weight to move society in the direction of one thing or the other. The leaning of the greatest weight determines where "we" go. Sometimes societies are so messed up in their weighing of issues that "we" end up driving society to war and holocausts, and dragging the rest of the world with us.

The question is what our collective values are. Add to that some governmental architecture (something else that "we" happens to value) and we have a social direction.

Recently I've begun to wonder about the value of personal happiness. What things do I do because they genuinely make me happy, and what do I do out of obligations I feel to others? Why do I give so much weight to the obligations to "we" when they do not make me happy?

read full comment
Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.