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The Risk of Bad Ideas in the Marketplace

November 22, 2010

John Stuart Mill compares ideas to products in a marketplace, saying that good ideas are bought, and bad ideas are not.  I would have to question if bad ideas are really not bought.  Think about other bad goods that are sold, such as cigarettes.  People still purchase cigarettes even though they know that cigarettes are bad for their health.  Likewise, illegal drugs are sold even though people know that they are breaking laws.

Relating this back to the concept of ideas, people will “buy” others’ ideas if the ideas do not affect them personally.  For example, in a typical high school bully scene, a group of bullies will follow what a lead bully does and laugh along with him or her, as long as the group members are not experiencing the bullying themselves.  This was evident in Dr. Zimbardo’s famous prison case as well.  Although participants in a psychological prison study knew they were acting, they conformed to their roles and were cruel and abusive to those around them.  While the participants knew that what they were doing was wrong, they continued to hurt each other.  In other words, the participants “bought” the bad idea and went along with it, which is the opposite of what Mill said would happen.  Check out the video below for an overview of Dr. Zimbardo’s prison case and how good people can be convinced to do bad things:

This video and the various examples mentioned above  make me think that Mill was wrong by saying that bad ideas will not be bought in the marketplace.

While I am absolutely a fan of the freedom of speech, I think that Mill’s concept of the freedom of speech could potentially be harmful to other people.  I understand that a multitude of opinions (both good and bad) create better informed opinions, but when an opinion is so harmful to a person that he or she feels excluded from the marketplace of opinions and ideas, I feel that there should be limits.  What Mill proposes as solution, the “Harm Principle,” is a bit too vague.  According to Wikipedia, Joel’s Feinberg’s “Offence Principle” seems more effective as punishments for harmful speech are based on a variety of factors, meaning that speech is more likely to be regulated.  For information about freedom of speech and its limits, visit:

  1. maqianhu permalink
    November 28, 2010 3:28 PM

    I totally agree with you that man people adopt bad ideas due to peer pressure and influence. In our current society, we often cannot make up our own minds ask others for opinion, whether it is fashion advice, relationship advice, or others, we rarely can generate opinions of our own. Ideas are often not generated by the brain itself but by other resources. And once an idea enters our brain, our brain become hosts to these parasitic ideas. The smoking example provided above reveals that people smoke because other people think it is cool. This is the effect of peer pressure. We obey social norms and follow other’s actions because of public opinion. So I would disagree with Mill, bad ideas are often adopted and that is why not all opinions should be allowed to publicize.

  2. Will Butler permalink
    November 28, 2010 11:28 PM

    My problem with the marketplace of ideas is exactly what I find wrong with classical liberalism, or an economic marketplace. Both ideas come with the assumption that the consumer is perfectly omniscient, with all the knowledge to make the most rational and best decision. However practically we know this to not be true. We are always unaware of some variable, some issue that would affect our decision. This makes both theories not as perfect in practice as it is on paper. However, for the record, I believe that a marketplace of ideas, even if people choose the bad ones, makes for a better, more intellectual society. Oppositely, uncontrolled economic markets can end up causing terrible economic disasters.

  3. vdeepa permalink
    December 2, 2010 1:39 AM

    Concerning your statement that sometimes bad ideas are “bought”, I think this ultimately depends on your definition of “bad”. In my opinion, the ideas that appeal to people are the ones that are bought. However, I also believe that any idea, “good” or “bad”, is of some value for one needs to compare an idea with other ideas in order to deem its worth.

    In section, we were discussing whether the fact that women add new ideas to the marketplace is the most compelling reason to question women’s subordination. In my opinion, it is the most practical reason. While there are very little ideas that are truly original anymore, input/modification to existing ideas is necessary for progress to occur. For this reason, I do not believe that the marketplace of ideas can ever become too saturated.

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