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Scholarship Abstract Use of the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has historically presumed that free and uninhibited competition among ideas will . . .
Use of the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has historically presumed that free and uninhibited competition among ideas will reliably arrive at truth. But even the most fervent economic free-market advocates recognize the possibility of market failure. Market failure is a market characteristic (e.g., monopoly power) that precludes the maximization of consumer welfare.
The last few years have witnessed increased calls for censorship of speech and research pertaining to a variety of subjects (e.g., climate change; COVID-19 sources and treatments; and viewpoints concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation) across a variety of fora. The consistent refrain in favor of this censorship is that the spread of false or misleading information is preventing access to or distorting the truth and thereby inhibiting social progress: undermining democracy, fomenting bigotry, costing lives, and even threating the existence of the planet.
Though on their face these calls for censorship appear anti-liberal and contrary to the marketplace model, they can be made consistent with both if they are understood as a response to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. While recent calls for censorship have not been justified expressly as a response to market failure, reframing the debate in these terms may prevent parties on both sides of the issue from engaging at cross purposes by locating the debate within an otherwise familiar model.
The Article proceeds as follows: Part I offers examples of recent calls for (and efforts at) censorship in the market of ideas concerning a variety of subjects and forums. Part II articulates a model of the marketplace of ideas that jibes with contemporary economic concepts, defines its components (e.g., sellers, buyers, intermediaries, etc.), considers the possibility of associated market failures, and highlights some common fallacies in the application of the concept of market failure more broadly. Part III explores the principal philosophical justifications for the utility of freedom of expression, focusing on the arguments articulated in John Stuart Mill’s classic, On Liberty. Part IV argues that, in light of these arguments (and taking into account contemporary critiques), the threat of false and misleading expression does not reflect market failure in the marketplace of ideas as modeled here. To the contrary, Part V argues that the ease with which recent public and private efforts at censorship have succeeded may itself reflect a market failure warranting correction—if not through legislation or the courts, then by social sanction and the court of public opinion.
TL;DR California’s state Assembly earlier this year passed A.B. 2408, which would impose a duty of care on social-media platforms for “any design, feature, or affordance that causes a child user… to become addicted to the platform.”
California’s state Assembly earlier this year passed A.B. 2408, which would impose a duty of care on social-media platforms for “any design, feature, or affordance that causes a child user… to become addicted to the platform.” The bill, which has also cleared the state Senate Judiciary Committee, would empower parents to bring class-action suits against Big Tech platforms, with minimum statutory damages set at $1,000 per class member. California prosecutors also could seek damages of $25,000 per violation, or $250,000 for knowing and willful violations. Liability would attach when a platform becomes aware that an algorithm is potentially addictive.
Not only is the theory of social-media addiction strongly contested, but it would be difficult, if not unconstitutional, to enforce the bill’s terms. The line differentiating fomenting user addiction and making a platform more attractive to users is exceedingly blurry. Moreover, a strong case can be made that A.B. 2408 violates the First Amendment.
Read the full explainer here.
Scholarship Abstract The Sherman Act establishes free competition as the rule governing interstate trade. Banning private restraints cannot ensure that competitive markets allocate the nation’s resources. . . .
The Sherman Act establishes free competition as the rule governing interstate trade. Banning private restraints cannot ensure that competitive markets allocate the nation’s resources. State laws can pose identical threats to free markets, posing an obstacle to achieving Congress’s goal to protect free competition.
The Sherman Act would thus override anticompetitive state laws under ordinary preemption standards. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court rejected such preemption in Parker v. Brown, creating the “state action doctrine.” Parker and its progeny hold that state-imposed restraints are immune from Sherman Act preemption, even if they impose significant harm on out-of-state consumers. Parker’s progeny also immunizes “hybrid” restraints—private agreements that states encourage or supervise.
Both the Supreme Court and numerous scholars have invoked federalism and state sovereignty to justify Parker’s state action doctrine. Some suggest that preemption would violate the Constitution. Others contend that these values manifest themselves as canons of construction that illuminate the statute’s original meaning. According to these scholars, the Act should not intrude upon traditional state prerogatives unless Congress plainly intended this result.
This article demonstrates that federalism and state sovereignty do not rebut the strong case for Sherman Act preemption of state-created restraints. Such preemption would be a garden-variety exercise of Congress’s commerce power. Moreover, Sherman Act preemption would not interfere with any constitutionally recognized attribute of state sovereignty.
Turning to canons of construction, the article concludes that such preemption is so plainly constitutional that the avoidance canon is inapposite. The federal-state balance and anti-preemption canons do protect traditional state regulatory spheres from inadvertent national intrusion. Neither supports Parker itself, which sustained a regime that directly burdened interstate commerce and injured out-of-state consumers. Application of these canons instead reveals that the Court’s invocation of federalism is selective at best. Indeed, the Court’s rejection of the federal-state balance canon and resulting application of the Act to local private restraints that produce no interstate harm created the very conflict between the Sherman Act and local regulation that the state action doctrine purports to resolve.
Consistent application of federalism principles bolsters the case for preemption, albeit within a much smaller sphere than the Sherman Act currently operates. Such considerations counsel retraction of the scope of the Act and concomitant allocation to states of exclusive authority over restraints that produce only intrastate harm. The resulting allocation of authority over trade restraints would nearly eliminate conflicts between local regulation and the Sherman Act and restore the uniform rule of free competition that best replicates the regulatory framework the 1890 Congress anticipated. Proponents of Parker who see states as laboratories for economic experimentation should welcome such reform, which would ironically result in less preemption of state-created restraints and strengthen the institution of competitive federalism.
Scholarship Abstract The U.S. Constitution divides authority over commerce between states and the national government. Passed in 1890, the Sherman Act (“the Act”) reflects this allocation . . .
The U.S. Constitution divides authority over commerce between states and the national government. Passed in 1890, the Sherman Act (“the Act”) reflects this allocation of power, reaching only those harmful agreements that are “in restraint of… commerce among the several States.” This Article contends that the Supreme Court erred when it radically altered the balance between state and national power over trade restraints in 1948, abruptly abandoning decades of Sherman Act precedent that had recognized exclusive state authority over most intrastate restraints. This revised construction of the Act contravened the statute’s apparent meaning, unduly expanded the reach of federal antitrust regulation, and undermined the regime of competitive federalism that had governed most intrastate restraints for more than five decades.
Drawing from its Commerce Clause jurisprudence of dual federalism, the Court initially employed the direct/indirect standard to allocate regulatory authority over intrastate restraints. Effects were direct if a restraint exercised market power to injure out-of-state consumers. The Sherman Act exerted Congress’s exclusive authority over such restraints, because state regulation might produce self-interested results contrary to the anti-favoritism principle that animated Commerce Clause jurisprudence. States retained exclusive authority over agreements producing indirect impacts on interstate commerce, and a regime of competitive federalism generated the rules governing such restraints. Because states internalized the full impact of such restraints, interjurisdictional competition likely tended to produce optimal legal rules.
Echoing Wickard v. Filburn, the Court jettisoned the direct/indirect standard in 1948, holding that the Act reaches restraints producing a “substantial effect” — even if harmless and indirect — on interstate commerce. This vast expansion of the Act undermined the regime of competitive federalism that had governed most intrastate restraints. This change also enabled application of the statute to local, state-approved restraints, empowering antitrust courts to supervise state regulatory processes, further undermining competitive federalism.
The Court has offered three rationales for rejecting the direct/indirect standard. First, the Court has claimed that Congress meant to reach restraints beyond the authority implied by pre-1890 dual federalism jurisprudence. Second, the Court has contended that the Act properly expands whenever the commerce power expands in other contexts. Third, the Court has treated the substantial effects test as a translation of the Act justified by a changed national economy. The Court has invoked the Act’s legislative history to bolster the first two contentions.
None of these rationales survives scrutiny. First, the phrase “restraint of… commerce among the several States” was apparently a term of art drawn from pre-1890 Commerce Clause jurisprudence. That case law employed “restraint” of interstate commerce as a synonym for state “regulation” of commerce deemed invalid because it directly burdened interstate commerce. Given the prior construction canon, Congress’s invocation of “restraint of… commerce” suggests that the Act should condemn only those private agreements that “directly burden” interstate commerce. The Court read the Act exactly this way in the1890s, repeatedly holding that intrastate or interstate agreements only restrained interstate commerce if they imposed direct burdens by producing supracompetitive prices for interstate transactions. These near-contemporaneous readings, themselves probative of original meaning, avoided constitutional difficulties that would have resulted from application of the Act to restraints causing no interstate harm.
Second, assertions that Congress chose to exercise whatever power future Courts might grant are speculation. Congress has declined to exercise its entire commerce power when enacting three different post-1890 antitrust statutes. Moreover, engrafting the substantial effects test onto the Sherman Act contravened the federal-state balance canon by supplanting traditional state prerogatives over intrastate restraints threatening no interstate harm.
Third, the substantial effects test is not a faithful translation of the Sherman Act in light of new facts. No court or scholar has identified changed circumstances that justify such a translation. Neither integration of the national economy nor increased scale of enterprises suggests that intrastate restraints generally produce interstate harm or that states are incapable of regulating them.
The legislative history bolsters this textual analysis. Several Senators endorsed pre-1890 dual federalism jurisprudence. The Senate Judiciary Committee rewrote Sherman’s bill, employing the term “restraint of commerce” to narrow its reach. The House passed the Senate bill verbatim, after its Judiciary Committee also embraced dual federalism. No member of Congress suggested that the Act would expand if the Court subsequently enlarged the scope of the commerce power.
The conclusion that the Court erred in 1948 does not itself justify return to the pre-1948 allocation of authority over antitrust matters. While stare decisis is weaker in the antitrust context, mere legal error does not suffice to upset longstanding precedent. If, however, the Court attributes the 1948 revision and continued expansion of the Act to changed economic circumstances — such as increased integration of the national economy — stare decisis should yield to post-1948 developments in the theory of competitive federalism. These developments confirmed that states possess appropriate incentives to generate impartial rules with respect to restraints that produce no interstate harm.
Reviving the direct/indirect standard would reboot competitive federalism in antitrust. The resulting competition between state “laboratories of democracy” would generate various substantive and institutional solutions to antitrust problems, as states vie for producers and consumers by offering rival packages of antitrust doctrine and enforcement institutions. Restoring the pre-1948 regime would also radically shrink the category of state-approved restraints potentially subject to the Act. Cases involving such restraints that did reach the Court would look quite different from those that have informed the Court’s treatment of these restraints. Instead of state regulation of local billboards and the like, such cases would involve restraints imposing substantial harm on out-of-state consumers. This new framing could force the current Court, which has less faith in regulation than its predecessors, to reconsider its approach to state-approved restraints.
ICLE White Paper Introduction Economist Ronald Coase devoted an article in the 1974 edition of the American Economic Review to an idea he had observed to be common . . .
Economist Ronald Coase devoted an article in the 1974 edition of the American Economic Review to an idea he had observed to be common among his academic colleagues:
(I)n the market for goods, government regulation is desirable whereas, in the market for ideas, government regulation is undesirable and should be strictly limited.
He found the idea strange because, as he argued in the paper, the two markets are not relevantly different. The case for regulation is no weaker in the market for ideas than in the market for goods. After all, it is usually easier for a consumer to know when ordinary goods are faulty than when ideas are bogus. Anyone can tell when a television doesn’t work. It takes unusual dedication to figure out, for example, that Hegel was wrong when he said that “absolute form and absolute content [are] identical — substance is in itself identical with knowledge.”
Coase hoped that devotion to consistency would inspire his peers to adopt a more skeptical attitude toward regulation of the market for goods. He got half of what he hoped for. Academics arguably have become more consistent, but rather than favor laissez-faire in the market for goods, they favor regulation in the market for ideas. This goes to show that consistency is not always something you should seek in your opponents.
Many professors are now keen to restrict the ideas their students hear; or, at least, they are willing to go along quietly with the enthusiasts for such restrictions. They do not seek to protect their students from the incoherent abstractions of 19th century German philosophers or from any other kind of intellectual error. Rather, they seek to protect them from encountering ideas that will offend them or otherwise make them feel uncomfortable, especially when the topics concern race, sex, sexuality, or some other aspect of “identity.”
Universities are not national or state governments, of course. Their regulatory powers stop at the campus gates. But that doesn’t change the point, which is that many academics appear no longer to believe that the benefits of a free market in ideas are worth the harms that accompany it.
Some outside of universities take the same view, not always drawing the line at private organizations being able to constrain the speech of those with whom they have voluntarily entered contracts. Rather, they want governments to protect consumers of ideas by restricting what can be said. Just as government regulation ensures that only cars meeting certain safety standards are offered for sale, so too should government regulation ensure that only ideas meeting certain safety standards are expressed.
Of course, the market for ideas is already constrained by some safety regulations. For example, an American may not advocate violence or other illegal activity when directed at “producing imminent lawless action.” But beyond this and a few other constraints established by legislation and the courts—such as those entailed by defamation law—the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the freedom to say all manner of harmful things. Some see this as a problem. For example, Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine, argued in a 2019 Washington Post op-ed that the United States should follow the lead of other developed nations and develop a hate-speech law. Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein proposed in his 2021 book Liars that speech deemed by the government to be false and harmful should lose its constitutional protection.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects “interactive computer services” from being treated as publishers or speakers of the content they host, is also becoming unpopular among those who worry about excessive freedom in the market for ideas. Some of its critics, usually from the political right, think it gives social media firms such as Facebook and Twitter too much freedom to indulge their political biases when moderating content. Other critics, usually from the political left, think it gives such firms too much freedom to host harmful content. Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have been critical of Section 230, if for very different reasons.
The fashion for private-sector speech prohibitions and proposals for more restrictive legal regimes agitate those who prize freedom of speech. It’s a hot topic in newspaper columns and on talk radio shows. Organizations have even been established to defend free speech, such as the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University and the U.K.’s Free Speech Union.
But defenders of free speech are generally doing their job poorly. Too many merely assert that “you should not have a right not to be offended,” when this is precisely what is at issue. Others follow the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill and claim that being offended, or suffering hurt feelings more generally, does not count as harm. Again, most seem to simply take this for granted, offering no reason why the offended are unharmed.
The right way to understand harm is economic. Something harms someone if he would pay to avoid it. Since offense and other hurt feelings can pass this test, they can be genuine harm (Section 1). And since speech can cause this harm—and most people believe that legal restrictions on causing harm are generally justified—we have a prima facie case for the regulation of speech.
Indeed, standard economics seems to provide more reason to regulate speech than ordinary goods. If a new car is defective and harms its drivers, people will be reluctant to buy it and its producer will suffer losses. Because the same goes for most goods, regulations that impose product standards are arguably unnecessary (at least, for this reason). Suppliers already have good reason to make their products safe. Speakers, by contrast, often do not bear the cost of the hurt feelings they cause. In other words, hurt feelings are an “external cost” of offensive speech. When someone doesn’t bear all the costs of an action, he tends to do it too much. That is to say, he does it even when the total social cost exceeds the total social benefit.
In his famous 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost,” Coase showed that one party holding a legal right not to suffer the external cost of some activity—such as being disturbed by noisy neighbors—needn’t stop it from happening. Nor would giving the neighbors the right to make noise guarantee that the noise continued. This is because, when certain conditions are met, the legally disfavored party will pay the favored party not to enforce his right (Section 2). When this happens, the outcome is efficient: in other words, it maximizes social welfare. Alas, the conditions for such rights trading are rarely met. When they are not, the initial allocation of rights determines the outcome. Which party’s interests should be protected by law therefore depends on who can avoid the harm at the lower cost. The efficient outcome will be produced by giving legal protection to the party facing the higher cost.
Coase’s conditions for trading rights aren’t met in the case of offensive speech (Section 2). We must therefore consider the costs faced by the offenders and by the offended when trying to avoid the offense. This appears to favor speech restrictions. After all, being offended is expensive, keeping your mouth shut is cheap, and each offensive speaker usually offends many hearers. For these reasons, Coasean analysis would seem on first impression to favor revisions to Section 230 that oblige social media platforms to be more assiduous in their moderation of offensive content. A post that would offend millions of the platform’s users can be removed at a low cost to the platform.
But that is merely a first impression. In this paper, I argue that the Coasean case for legal restrictions on offensive speech collapses when confronted with three facts: that being offended is often a masochistic pleasure; that most of the offensive speech that concerns would-be censors occurs on privately owned platforms; and that the proposed restrictions would impose large costs on society. Neither the First Amendment nor Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be weakened to remove protection for offensive speech.
Before answering the prima facie Coasean case for restrictions on offensive speech, however, we need to appreciate its force, which begins with recognizing that offense can be a real harm.
Read the full white paper here.
Popular Media Fresh off his second-place finish — behind only former President Donald Trump — in the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Gov. . . .
Fresh off his second-place finish — behind only former President Donald Trump — in the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top priority heading into this year’s legislative session is custom-fit to appeal to the CPAC crowd: going after Big Tech social-media companies for their alleged anti-conservative bias.
Read the full piece here.
TOTM Ajit Pai will step down from his position as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) effective Jan. 20. Beginning Jan. 15, Truth on the Market will host a symposium exploring Pai’s tenure, with contributions from a range of scholars and practitioners.
Ajit Pai will step down from his position as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) effective Jan. 20. Beginning Jan. 15, Truth on the Market will host a symposium exploring Pai’s tenure, with contributions from a range of scholars and practitioners.
Scholarship When Congress expands executive power for purposes of protecting the nation against an emergency—whether real or imagined—that power is often turned against vulnerable, marginalized populations that are easily scapegoated as threats to the state.
On February 15, 2019, President Donald Trump issued Proclamation 9844 pursuant to the National Emergencies Act of 19761 (NEA), declaring a “National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States.” On February 27, the House of Representatives voted 245–182 to overturn the declaration of national emergency; on March 14, the Senate agreed with the House in a 59–41 vote. The following day, the President vetoed the joint resolution. Neither house of Congress was able to override the veto and so, more than a year later, the emergency remains in place.
The border wall emergency declared by President Trump has awakened strident opposition in Congress, which is a historical anomaly. And yet, although virtually none of the previous declarations engendered the vehement outcry that accompanied the border wall emergency declaration, they were substantially different only in scope, not in kind. Including Trump’s border wall emergency declaration and four subsequent emergency declarations, Presidents going back to Jimmy Carter have declared a total of 57 emergencies under the NEA. Thirty-four of these are still active. And all but four of them could hardly be called emergencies. Even without the partisan political context of the border wall dispute, any of these should have been sufficient to raise the question of whether and how to rein in presidential power.
TOTM Monday July 22, ICLE filed a regulatory comment arguing the leased access requirements enforced by the FCC are unconstitutional compelled speech that violate the First Amendment.
Monday July 22, ICLE filed a regulatory comment arguing the leased access requirements enforced by the FCC are unconstitutional compelled speech that violate the First Amendment.