October 23, 2011

The Marketplace of Ideas

Before the dust settles on the standoff between Team Anna and the government, it becomes important to review the entire incident, and draw lessons for the future. If the whole episode could be defined by a metaphor, then a malfunctioning of the marketplace of ideas is the metaphor. Ever since Justice Holmes of the US Supreme Court invoked the concept of the marketplace of ideas in his Abrams dissent, academic and popular understandings of a liberal democracy have accepted the notion that the truth or the best policy arises out of the competition of diverse ideas in a free, and transparent public discourse. The government in a democracy should serve an informed electorate by making informed decisions; the relevant information having been mediated and coordinated through the marketplace of ideas. Relevant information should be produced, consumed and then assimilated into democratic decision making in the Parliament.

Did that happen in the current case? Can there be an effective functioning of the marketplace of ideas when the leader of a group in the marketplace is sitting on an indefinite fast? Is this the right way for the future to debate, and produce relevant information which then needs to be discussed in the Parliament? I argue that incidents like this distort the marketplace of ideas by exaggerating the evils of the government; and by serving to socialize the citizenry into conformity to some perspectives rather than others. A badly informed or misinformed public in the marketplace of ideas is a market failure in itself, and this sends inconsistent signals and insignificant information to the Parliament. On the other hand, this helps groups like Team Anna to dominate politics by manipulating information and influence. What about people who lack a viable channel for communicating their response? What about people who do not believe that fasting is the only way to register a protest or debate issues in the marketplace of ideas? Feeling cut off from an active participation, many people (including me) are left with the passivity of an evening in front of the TV that is controlled (even after the advent of Cable TV) by oligopolistic networks practicing a very definite view point censorship. Many subjects or perspectives (like the NCPRI’s version of the Lokpal Bill) are ignored or relegated to fragmented ‘market surrogates’ like editorials, and television shows like Walk the Talk (whereas the proceedings from Ramlila Maidan are telecast live throughout the day, and at prime time slots). This is because these other perspectives are thought to be unentertaining and thus, unprofitable. When Anna sits on an indefinite fast, he succeeds in fragmenting and thereby closing the marketplace of ideas to rival ideas.

I’m not suggesting that socially valuable experiments in discourse, like Team Anna’s crusade against corruption, should be abandoned. Dissenters like Team Anna should be protected against the majority; without having to prove the ‘hard-to-measure’ worth of their speech. Rather than try to extinguish or circumscribe attempts to influence public policy, I say, let’s have more in an equal and democratic manner. The quality of public policy depends on many factors, but perhaps the most important of these is the quality of information and argument. What’s missing is a forum for constituents, and other interested parties to come together and publicly and transparently debate legislation, and in the process provide Parliament, and the public access to the best available arguments, information and ideas about public policy. This would ensure in separating the often seductive form of the message from its substance, and would result in a more democratic and more thoroughly vetted public policy.

This is where the government needs to step in. It should open up private and public channels of communication, through attempts to equalize access to the marketplace of ideas. It should put in place a framework for mandatory pre-legislative consultations before a bill is introduced in Parliament. This would ameliorate market failures, like the current one, and create a better balance- a more dynamic tension between opposing viewpoints.

This whole incident points out a serious flaw in the lawmaking process. Today, our country faces a dearth of institutional structures that provide an effective functioning of the marketplace of ideas in the pre-legislative process. This leaves room for Anna Hazare to distort the marketplace of ideas by resorting to an indefinite fast. Does the (NAC) fill this vacuum? The NAC is a relatively recent innovation in India and the overall verdict on their role in pre-legislative discussions must be reserved. However, it must be noted that NAC would amount to governmental determination of speech outcomes if the people who are part of it are appointed solely by the government.

Image: India Kangaroo

Going a step further, there should also be an effective marketplace of ideas in the Parliament where all members of the House can then discuss these issues and vote freely. Currently, our anti-defection laws deny a member of the Parliament freedom to vote freely. This ensures that members of the Parliament primarily represent their political parties rather than their constituents or their inner conscience. The anti-defection law should be amended, in so far as it hinders parliamentary democracy.

Collectively, we should be better educated now about law making, less reverent, more democratic and somewhat more egalitarian in allowing opposing viewpoints to be heard in the marketplace of ideas. Perhaps, we should now realize that the will of the people often gets manipulated through reverence to one figure sitting on an indefinite fast. The symbolic and educative function of democracy should now be used a little more actively, to help create the kind of society we should and can become.

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