…the market for bullshit is parasitic on the market for sincere attempts to tell the truth.
Because bullshit derives most of its value from the fact that not everyone can always tell the difference between these two things. Strictly speaking, the market for bullshit is no more separable from the market for putative public truths in general than Akerlof’s “market for lemons”, for used cars not really worth the price they’re being offered for, is from the market for used cars in general.
It’s one segment of the market for putative truths, in the same way the market for lemons is one segment of the market for used cars.
The segment, in both cases, includes all and only those items that are worth less than they’re presented as being worth. (Or at least, in the case of bullshit, where the seller hasn’t exercised nearly enough diligence to really know that they’re worth as much as he’s presenting them as being worth.)
Every issuance of egregious bullshit that’s at all consequential is, in fact, an exchange, involving at least two parties. There are people who produce egregious bullshit, often for a living, and there are people who buy it, and hold onto it until and unless they see through it. The producers are paid by the consumers, not with a permanent transfer of the scarce commodity, credence, but with a conditional loan that can be recalled at will. The unique and distinctive transaction in this market is the temporary exchange of egregious bullshit for credence. Sooner or later, this credence may be repossessed by the credulous person, when the bullshit becomes discredited in his eyes. (When and if the bullshit artist’s ulterior motives become too readily apparent, or crucial facts turn out to be too obviously false, or the emotional impact simply fades.)
So really it’s a commodity market, because while some truths remain true forever, bullshit gets used up over time, like gasoline, or sugar, meaning new bullshit must constantly be produced.
The objective of each established vendor of bullshit is to get the customer to constantly roll over his credence to a new story from the same source, instead of repossessing it and looking for another vendor. But if the perceived credibility of the pool of existing vendors, in aggregate, declines, for some reason, new vendors with equally low quality bullshit who were shut out of the market before will become able to enter and compete.
Every time a prestigious institution or a prestigious public official lowers a standard somehow to compete in the market for putative pieces of public information, whether in an internal or an external struggle, every time we see egregious bullshit from an unexpected source, some players outside the Establishment lose their tinfoil hats. Every time a prestigious news source uses an invidious headline or elides a crucial fact, other, less trusted sources of information suddenly seem more credible. Disenchanted television viewers move from the news networks to the Daily Show, opining that there’s no difference except the entertainment value. But once they have, they’re just as likely to wander on over to the Onion, even though they might never have thought of that as an alternative to CNN or the Washington Post before the move.
That means this market has an odd and dangerous feature, one that makes it similar to the market for lemons. As exchange value – price, in the case of used cars, and credence, in the case of bullshit – goes down, average quality should also get worse.
The most salient and crucial truths will already be employed, in some existing item or tradition of bullshit, and can’t be repeated in any interesting and engaging way. Each additional marginal piece of bullshit must be either less directly relevant, or more contaminated with falsehood, or both, to succeed in being unique. To compete for the attention and credence of a fixed number of humans, it should also be gaudier than its predecessors. It should be more extreme, more bizarre or more shocking or more pleasing or moving or nobler or more wrathful or terrifying or self-mutilating or funnier, in order to still be noticeable in the more crowded field. Existing sources of public information, however credible, may also have to participate in this race to the bottom, if they’re going to retain viewers or readers. So the average quality of their output is likely to decline along with everyone else’s. That makes the information asymmetry a lot worse…
In the face of increased competition, existing issuers also have to try even harder to catch the public’s increasingly fragmented attention, and are likely to increase the volume of putative information they put out. So as “price” (average number of people convinced and mean duration of the conviction produced by the typical piece of bullshit) goes down, the aggregate quantity of bullshit being produced should actually increase in response. The price elasticity of the bullshit supply curve is negative.
But that means that the quantity increases if the quality declines. And we already knew that the quality declines if the quantity increases. So if the quality declines, the quantity increases. And if the quantity increases, then the quality declines. But if the quality declines, the quantity should increase again. And if the quantity increases again, the quality should decline again… Which is cascading failure, in the same kind of jerky series of successive steps down that Akerlof described for the used car market.
If the public can’t tell the difference between good and bad sources of information, if they suddenly or gradually lose that ability somehow, the market for public information becomes vulnerable to this sort of failure. Because the average source may then in fact become much worse, much less honest, than they’re used to supposing. Is forced to do that, in order to compete, by the public’s very confusion. And things can continue to cascade down from there. So the equilibrium outcome can be zero transactions. Zero credence being lent. Nobody really believing anything anyone says in public.
Sooner or later, public revulsion may set in, and the market may fail completely.
The specific sort of fragility I’m imagining in the market for public information is a vulnerability to cascading failure,
1571, a cassocked Spanish Jesuit named José de Acosta, who hailed from the arid plains of Medina del Campo, found himself testing his sea legs on the deck of an oaken caravel lurching about in the mid-Atlantic. The mother church had ordered him to distant Peru, and so he bowed his head and went. But as his balky vessel blew across the equator, he looked up, spotted a pasty sun set high in the sky, knitted his brow, shivered a little, and burst into peels of philosophical laughter—the sort of kick-the-chair-out-from-under-the-teacher belly laugh that Nietzsche would have loved. I’ll let Father Acosta explain:
Here is what happened to me when I crossed over to the Indies: Having read what the poets and philosophers write of the “burning zone,” I persuaded myself that coming to the equatorial region I should perish from the violence of the terrible heat. But it fell out otherwise, for when I passed over—the sun being directly overhead, and it being March—I was so incredibly cold that I was forced to go out into the sun to warm myself. What could I do then but laugh at Aristotle and his philosophy, seeing that in that place and in the season when, according to his principles, everything should have been scorched with fire, my companions and I were freezing cold?
Those long-faced men who crammed theology in the stony cloisters of Toledo seldom found themselves busting a gut at the foolishness of Aristotle (known simply in those days as “The Philosopher”), whose metaphysics had become the basic architecture of Catholic doctrine. In Acosta’s chortle, then, one feels the earth move. For a moment the vaulting edifice of classical learning teeters, and with it the whole theory of knowledge in the Renaissance—that hallowed notion that the deepest truths lay in the deepest recesses of antiquity, that one went back to the old books to find the right answers. Acosta, plucked up from the half-light of his cell and lashed to the mast of the age of discovery, found himself watching his cherished textual authorities wash away in the wake. A little travel is a dangerous thing.
And the sixteenth century saw a lot of travel. Right about the same time that Acosta was kissing Aristotle on both cheeks and chucking him overboard, a short Flemish mapmaker from Rupelmonde named Gerardus Mercator (né Kremer, son of a shoemaker) was doing much the same for Ptolemy,…
The above two pieces fit together in my mind.
One of my big objections to the modern world is that society encourages dysfunctional approaches to most knowledge.
In other words, the liars are still selling their lies. They make evil profits from an evil market.
A cascading failure in the market for lies will probably not bring about a Utopia of Truth, any more than the public rejection of Aristotle brought about a Utopia of Truth. But at this point, I’ll take whatever truth I can get.