Saturday, April 14, 2007

Let the market decide?

People I respect and admire have taken completely contrary viewpoints to my own in regards to issues like the firing of Don Imus and Tim O'Reilly's proposal of a bloggers' code of conduct in light of the Kathy Sierra incident. As I have combed through their writings and analyzed their viewpoints, a phrase keeps popping up - "Let the market decide."

The assumption appears to be that we don't need rules and regulations or even standards of conduct. Somehow, the market will turn the tide against misogyny, bigotry and racism. Whether it's the marketplace of ideas, or products and services, the presumption is that we need to tolerate the intolerable because the logic of the market will do everything required to preserve sanity and respect.

Karl Popper was not so sanguine.

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. - The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1:263

Popper made it very clear that he was not proposing that we prevent the expression of intolerant ideas per se. As long as rational dialogue can keep the intolerant in check, we need take no further measures. But we must reserve the right to suppress them, by force if necessary, once they refuse rational argument and begin using fists and pistols instead of debate. Popper even went so far as to argue that incitement to intolerance be considered a criminal offense in the same way that incitement to murder or kidnapping is criminal.

True, as O'Reilly and others have realized, we need nuance and precision in such discussions. All I'm saying is that in addition to clarity, we need exactly what Popper proposed; namely, a refusal to allow unbridled intolerance.

So, what about Imus? I don't know. Personally, I think his temporary suspension after his apology should be enough of a penalty. Imus recognized his mistake and admitted "that you can't make fun of everybody, because some people don't deserve it."

The hate-filled language of others against Kathy Sierra and hosted on Chris Locke's website is, in my opinion, worse yet. Locke's tolerance level was unjustified; but, like Imus, at least he did the decent thing and distanced himself from the worst excesses. Maybe that, too, is enough.

But what worries me most is the complacency of those advocating "let the market decide." I think their complacency is innocent enough, given the context of current public discourse in North America. After all, neither Imus nor those attacking Kathy Sierra got away with their behaviour. But that is no guarantee for the future. The marketplace is not, and never has been, surety that decency and justice will prevail. What keeps our current marketplace in check is the threat of force, the recognition that excesses will be curtailed by government and a public which is generally fair-minded. In other words, what makes the marketplace work is the culture of fairness and decency in which it operates.

If that culture deteriorates, if it is attacked successfully, if the checks and balances become unbalanced, then the marketplace will become a platform for power, coercion and force. Again, what we require is vigilance, courage, and a refusal to tolerate intolerance. The marketplace is not the answer.

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