The good folks at Organizations & Markets ask why economists haven’t paid closer attention to the economics of free speech. The classic piece on this is Ronald Coase’s “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas” (available from campus IP addresses). Coase asks why the rationale for goods’ market regulation doesn’t carry over into the realm of the market for ideas. Here is how he characterizes the prevailing attitudes:
In the market for goods, the government is commonly regarded as competent to regulate and properly motivated. Consumers lack the ability to make the appropriate choices. Producers often exercise monopolistic power and, in any case, without some form of government intervention, would not act in a way which promotes the public interest.
Fair enough. But then,
In the market for ideas, the position is very different. The government, if it attempted to regulate, would be inefficient and its motives would, in general, be bad, so that, even if it were successful in achieving what it wanted to accomplish, the results would be undesirable. Consumers, on the other hand, if left free, exercise a fine discrimination in choosing between the alternative views placed before them, while producers, whether economically powerful or weak, who are found to be so unscrupulous in their behavior in other markets, can be trusted to act in the public interest, whether they publish or work for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Coase wrote the piece in the early 1970s, partly in response to federal regulation of commercial advertising, wondering whether there is a difference between firms schlepping products via commercial advertisements in the goods market is really any different than an article or an editorial in the New York Times.
Improbably, Time Magazine carried an article on Coase’s article and summarized his position nicely:
Coase challenged two assumptions that, he says, have created the distinction in public policy: 1) that consumers are able to distinguish good ideas from bad on their own, though they need help in choosing among competing goods; and 2) that publishers and broadcasters deserve laissez-faire treatment while other entrepreneurs do not.
It might be tempting for us to dismiss Coase’s argument as glib posturing, or as an example of economists being too clever for our own good. But how we define and constrain free speech is a central element of our political system. President Obama, in fact, spent his weekly radio address admonishing the recent Supreme Court decision that removed many legislative controls of corporate campaign financing. One would suspect that Coase was arguing to relax regulation of the goods market, not extend regulation to the ideas market, but the proliferation of the internet and other news sources has perhaps muddied the waters so much that the distinction is unrecognizable.
So, more to come, I suspect.