Bryan Caplan misses an obvious explanation when addressing this issue:
Libertarians love to preach the virtues of markets. Yet in the “marketplace of ideas,” their bundled product has been regularly and thoroughly rejected for over a century. Until libertarians acknowledge that market verdict and re-think either what they’re selling, how they’re selling it, or both, they will remain on the margins of American political life.
Caplan points to some explanations:
- There may be large negative externalities in the market for ideas. So the costs of irrationality in the market for ideas are imposed on others. Maybe. Yet he ignores positive externalities – so when a a few libertarians get it into their heads that, say, a mining tax is bad idea and blog and op-ed about how silly the idea is until almost everyone realises that it is silly and the tax gets dropped, the benefits to society are very large, yet society has not become “libertarian” and those libertarians remain on the margins of political life.
- Then he suggests that the market is ideas is about truth while consumers in that market are more likely to demand “comfort and entertainment”. Maybe. Yet it seems to me that truth could be a bundled product.
That is all well and good but it seems to me that the market for ideas – like all markets – can be, and is, distorted by government intervention. The most obvious mechanism to distort the market for ideas is public education. Thirteen years of free and compulsory statist brainwashing is very likely to distort the ideas that people are likely to find more or less attractive. Public broadcasting too. Government financed NGOs – whose primary function is to then lobby government – publicly funded “think” tanks, and increasingly the university system are all institutions that crowd out civil society more broadly and constrain the market for ideas. This is even before we get to legislation that makes certain ideas unlawful.
So my answer would be to say that libertarians may be on the fringes of society, yet can and do make massive contributions to public policy and do so despite the massive distortions generated by government intervention in the market for ideas.