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The Market for Ideas: Supplying and Demanding Thoughtfulness

The Market for Ideas: Supplying and Demanding Thoughtfulness Ruminations that inspired the creation, three years ago, of a wilfully free-speech and free-access, hopefully critical and creative, magazine

It has been three years since our project – The Market for Ideas – took shape. We have tried to present our readers with interesting ideas from a wide variety of fields and penned by a wide variety of others. To the best of our abilities, we have tried not to turn this journal into a publication by Romanians for Romanians, only in English, which would be snobbery, but a shared space in which Romanian issues could be presented alongside more general considerations for the edification of a diverse and educated, but non-expert audience. The figures back us up, both on Facebook and on the website, where Romanians are still a plurality, but no longer the majority of our readers. Hopefully, we have not driven any of them away; instead, we rather managed to interest some people in our corner of the Internet, which is a difficult thing to do in a world given to shallow and homogenizing diversity. Facts and figures: TMFI is being read in 188 jurisdictions all over the world and its writers come from more than 50 countries.

Part of the world of online TMFI 

We have had ample proof of the success of The Market for Ideas, but we are aware that our ambitions exceeded our means. Certain plans were put on hold or shelved while a non-profit project reliant on the goodwill of its many contributors and the patience of its distracted founders tried to steam ahead towards quality, coherence and, hopefully, relevance. Being blessed with imperfection, we have much to strive for and will do so in the coming months, as we migrate to a new website that improves our workflow and allows us to more easily add the features we had planned for all along, and while we also try to maintain a rhythm in our publication that at least approximates that of journals of nobler birth and greater resources.

What is important to us is that we are not the custodians of this market for ideas, but active participants, wrestling with unfamiliar ideas or ones which do not flatter our prejudices. We are, as it were, its main consumers, since there is no material penned here that has not been read by both of us and, in editing for clarity, we edit also for our edification. It is sometimes difficult, but the journal is better for its acceptance of truly diverse viewpoints. And, in this labour of love, we are also engaged in an exercise of what we had only understood in theory, until now – a true “market for ideas”, albeit one where the price is counted in the patience of the reader and, sometimes, in the forbearance of its contributors.

In lieu of more promises or a florid “to be continued”, we will stay true to form with a digression on the market for ideas.

 

From idea(l)-ism 

While “the market for ideas” has what it takes to be a mature scientific concept, more often than not, scholars and commoners alike place it between metaphors and paraphrases. Commonsensically portrayed, it is “the state of nature” of thoughtful people: human minds strive to change and exchange thoughts free from barriers and burdens.

It seems that economics and political science have at least something to say about such “market for ideas”, in addition to the sciences of cognition and communication. The “marketplace” of ideas is a combination of “bazaars”, governed by the law of demand and supply, and “agorae”, governed by the democratic rule of law or by the despotic rule of men.

Far from free-floating and scarcity-free objects, ideas are (serviceable) products (calculatedly) produced by (resourceful) producers, and thus subject to economic, profit-seeking judgments. Also, ideas are the offshoot of nominally overrated, but otherwise heavily amended, freedom of expression, tempered in the political arena by the power of either majorities or minorities.

Therefore, it is legitimate to continuously question which are and ought to be the mechanisms for securing the quest for truth, since only true/right/correct ideas are ultimately useful, although shortsighted profit and power blindness suggest otherwise.

The existing literature on the market for ideas appears heterogeneous and unconsolidated. The economic way of thinking in this domain is credited to have emerged with A. Director’s “The Parity of the Economic Marketplace” (1964), pointing to the (anti)symmetry between goods and ideas, a theme restated by R. Coase (1973) in terms of market failures and regulation. The picturing of knowledge as a factor of production predates its framing as a market process: A. Marshall (1890) notably indicated knowledge as a critical guide for the formation of capital; F. Machlup started to document in the late 1950s the power of knowledge in the modern economy; R. Solow, P. Romer and R. Lucas also contributed.

The “knowledge economy” is, today, the paradigm that (supposedly) displaced and replaced the obsolete industrial one. We will not join the debate. Our target is different: the scrutiny of the market for ideas as a process with idiosyncratic institutional features. A “sampling” of this mode of thought is outlined below. 

The “mapamonde” of ideas (@ K. Popper)

In the lecture “Three Worlds” (1978), K. Popper differentiates between three individualized but intertwined universes: “World 1”, of natural, material bodies, “World 2”, of mental states or processes (e.g., feelings and thoughts), and “World 3”, of final products of the human mind, ranging from artistic to scientific objects (e.g., various theoretical and technical applications). “World 2” objects live as long as the mind that brings them to life is active, while “World 3” objects outlive their issuers. The market for ideas is the process that shifts a W2 object to W3.

The “metabolism” of ideas (@ M. Polanyi)

Three criteria put M. Polanyi at the foundation of what we may call “epistemic democracy” or “scientific market”: i. a decent degree of plausibility for the results, ii. scientific value (methodological accurate, systemically important, intrinsically interesting), and iii. originality. The entity possessing authority in validating scientific contributions is the “network”, the scientific public opinion. Properly established, it could wisely solve the Burke-Paine dilemma (tradition/conservatives vs. freedom/progressives), so critical in the development of science.

The “mechanics” of ideas (@ F. Hayek)

Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) explains how the socially dispersed information (about consumers’ tastes and producers’ techniques) can be spontaneously ordered and coordinated with the help of a freely formed price system. Thus, a numerical index is attached to each unit of a resource, reflecting its importance in the means-ends societal structure. The prerequisite for societal coordination is the free market, the economic system based on clearly definable, strongly defendable, and easily divestible private property rights.

The “melee” of ideas (@ D. McCloskey)

D. McCloskey’s “Bourgeois Era” trilogy (“Bourgeois Virtues”, 2006; “Bourgeois Dignity”, 2010; “Bourgeois Equality”, 2016) is a tribute to the ideas of “equality of liberty in law and of dignity in esteem”, found responsible for the upheaval of Western civilization. Despite its historical betterment, modern civilisation is under constant assault not from abroad, but from within. Responsible for this is the “clerisy” (a class made of state-addicted and politically-correct intellectuals, the inversion of the dissident “intelligentsia” from the former socialist world).

The “management” of ideas (@ R. Coase)

There is a lasting double standard about regulation in the markets for goods as opposed to those for ideas. If in the former, many intellectuals advise for state regulation, invoking the need to protect the poorly informed masses of consumers from fraudulent producers, in the latter, the same intellectuals demand freedom of expression, even if damages produced by poor ideas sometimes reach epic proportions. In “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas”, Coase (1973) criticizes this inconsistency, drawing attention that in any domain the state is at least equally prone to failures as the markets are.

The “marketing” of ideas (@ M. Sandel)

M. Sandel proposes in “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” (2012) a double-layered critique of commodification and commercialization: on the positive layer, he observes that certain goods simply vanish in the very moment in which they are exchanged for money (i.e., rightly, it is contradictory to buy honours); on the normative layer, money may erode the value of the things bought, since by “nature” some goods are reserved for selfless transactions (i.e., blood). One sensitive application of this logic is the (corrupted!?) market for scientific studies.

The “mimesis” of ideas (@ T. Maiorescu)

At the dawn of Romanian modernization, in the 19th century, T. Maiorescu (“În contra direcției de astăzi în cultura română” [“Against the Current Tide in the Romanian Culture”]) explained the shortcomings of the process as caused by the profound mismatch between the “forms” (abundantly mimicked) and the “foundation” (rather missing). This caesura was considered as a chronic disease of the Romanian intellectual life that mainly replicated the ritualist aspects from foreign mature epistemic communities, still lacking a solid infrastructure, both moral and material, of evaluation, homologation and regeneration, thus self-severing from universality.

The “metrics” of ideas (@ Web of Science)

Scientometrics seems to be the ultimate tool for assessing the quality of scientific work. Even if it proposed a metric, therefore rigorous system for assessing “factors of impact” and “scores of influence”, the entire mechanism of career-building (rather than scientific validation) raised on it became untrustworthy with the heavy immixture of government bodies, issuing arbitrary benchmarks and standards. Scientific production is already distorted by the opaquely allocated public funds, while also at odds with market funded studies’ prescriptions.

Part of the world of printed TMFI

 

To journal-ism 

I was asked, or rather we asked each other, a somewhat self-answering question that should remain rhetorical: “How can we rescue the quality press in Romania?”. I personally replied instinctively: “By doing it!”, without disregarding, of course, the market dialectics, where consumers dictate.

Press quality depends, first and foremost, on the quality of its consumers. Any producer seeks to identify the tastes and the purchasing power of their would-be readership. On the other hand, consumers are not absolutely invariable: they can be taught (to become self-taught). They are neither morally nor intellectually inflexible; they develop and evolve. Information processed to different degrees is a merchandise that once claimed and used with common sense has so many “positive externalities” that rescuing it is indeed a “socially responsible” act. Any competitive producer on the market, for instance, will seek to form an audience that is informed, demanding, discerning, with an observant eye for competitiveness, which is mutually beneficial. Likewise, they will also target an audience capable of discriminating between good and bad public policies and institutions. They too can willingly “subsidise” good press.

Still, how can we tell which press is “worth rescuing”? For the consumer, “quality” as well as taste and skill may be out of the question, but “the positive” and “the normative” can be joined, within regenerative common sense. The definition of product / audience quality may be “unbiased” and the press has the particular gift of finding the right criteria for profiling quality effortlessly. We are thinking that quality press arises, almost tautologically, from scrutinising reality in quest of historical facts and a better future, by the means of logical (sic, not “political”) correctness. Quality press cannot unravel “the mysteries of the reality it documents” without resorting to “the science of the reality it observes” – an increasingly harsh battle since the mere logic of human action and interactions, used to decode social information, seems, too often, “democratically” put to “uncomfortable” sleep!?

 
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