July 21, 2005 · Cass Sunstein
Here’s a passage from the first entry on Judge Richard Posner’s blog (which he runs with Gary Becker): “Blogging is . . . a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge. The powerful mechanism that was the focus of Hayek’s work, as of economists generally, is the price system (the market). The newest mechanism is the ‘blogosphere.’ There are 4 million blogs. The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers.”
I think that Posner is wrong to see the blogosphere as a Hayekian mechanism akin to the price system. The blogosphere does not produce prices. It doesn’t even produce a giant wiki, aggregating dispersed information. Instead it offers an amazingly diverse range of claims, perspectives, rants, insights, lies, facts, non-facts, sense, and nonsense. In his recent book, Blog, Hugh Hewitt celebrates the power of blogs to hold powerful actors, including the mass media, to account. He’s right to celebrate that power. And of course it’s true that the blogosphere makes it more likely that dispersed knowledge will get out. But the analogy to the price system is badly strained.
My little book, Republic.com, was written before blogs had anything like the prominence they now have. But it would be easy to apply the argument there to the blogosphere — to suggest that too much of the time, like-minded people are speaking (or at least listening) mostly to one another, ensuring that they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. I believe that this view would be much too pessimistic (see the diverse comments on this blog, for example, or at The Volokh Conspiracy), but the question is really an empirical one on which we don’t yet have a lot of data.
The blogosphere is exposing people to lots of new topics, perspectives, and information. But Posner’s invocation of Hayek is a big stretch.