Introducing Wei-Wei Wang | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Our sixth and final introductory blog post is authored by Wei-wei Wang, a rising senior at New York University.

Market Failure in the 'Marketplace of Ideas'

As an Econ major, I’ve always found the oft-used “marketplace of ideas” slogan to be particularly bizarre because of the somewhat mismatched parallel it draws between ideas (which are, of course, intangible) and material goods and services. Most commonly used in conjunction with heaping praise for the academic freedom that students and faculty purportedly enjoy on university campuses, the underlying idea is a romantic one: that engaging in free and open discourse is the most effective and democratic way to uncover intellectual truths and form solutions to today’s most pertinent questions. Many students—myself included—embrace this ambitious model of an idea marketplace because, quite frankly, it sounds enticing. Who wouldn’t be attracted to the analogy that, like the various commodities that we exchange on a daily basis, our ideas deserve just as much—if not more—freedom to move liberally between holders?

But while the debate is still out on what (if any—depending on your political inclination) failures arise in the markets for goods and services, my college experience has indicated that the marketplace of ideas tends to produce at least one market failure: ideological apathy. It’s useful to think of apathy as a free rider problem that arises when students become too comfortable with the efforts of their activist peers to push the envelope and rally for causes that are generally popular among the university population. Over time, comfort leads to acquiescence, and acquiescence to apathy. The resulting analogy is that, much like free-riding in the conventional marketplace leads to inefficiency and the underproduction of public goods, the most alarming consequence of apathy on campuses today is the shortcomings that result when students are non-responsive to the shrinking of their individual liberties.

This “market failure” became clear to me as a student at NYU when, in March of 2006, the controversy over the Muhammed cartoons reached my campus. FIRE has focused extensively (and rightly so) on the university administration’s lame attempts to justify its censorship of the NYU Objectivist Club, but the most disturbing aspect of my on-campus experience was actually not the rhetoric of the university itself, but the lackadaisical attitude of my peers. In every single one of my classes, you could hardly tell that there had been any dispute over the cartoons at all; it was as if we were all individually living in stupefied bubbles into which even the most important controversy—an issue of free speech rights—could not penetrate. Even I wasn’t completely innocent of my own charges: though I kept daily tabs on NYU’s student newspaper, I was only passively aware of the blatant censorship that transpired on my own campus. Worse, the vague knowledge that somebody out there was challenging the administration’s actions was satisfying enough to me.

It wasn’t until one of my professors nostalgically recounted his days as an activist law student during the Vietnam War that I began to realize just how pervasive our collective apathy had become. His stories of university-wide shutdowns at Columbia and UC-Berkeley in the 60’s, during the heyday of student activism, triggered pangs of guilt within me. When did college students become so jaded? When did our sense of intellectual and ideological responsibility shift from ourselves to some far-away idea of “somebody else will take care of it”?

This was when I realized: No matter how many organizations like the SDS of the 60’s or FIRE of today exist out there, the true springboard for the marketplace of ideas will always be the students. The term “academic freedom” will always be an attractive selling point for the university’s recruitment efforts, but the true extent of students’ freedoms will continue to shrink as long as we are apathetic about guarding our on-campus liberties.

Wei-wei Wang is a rising senior at New York University. She is currently studying economics and Spanish and would like to go to law school to study constitutional law. This summer, Wei-wei hope to finally fulfill her childhood dream of building her own optical telescope.

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