Stranger in a Familiar Land

In “Bonfire of the Clichés,” Sarah Skwire ably diagnoses the problem with the relationship between literature and markets (and, by implication, individual liberty). Several of her prescriptions for curing this ill deserve further exploration.

Her point about “deduction by reduction” is well made. Not only should pro-market minds be unsatisfied in allowing Hard Times to represent all of Charles Dickens, but we should also be unsatisfied in allowing Dickens to represent all of, say, Victorian English literature. Students of free enterprise will find much of interest in Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial novel North and South, for example, and its underdog of an entrepreneur, the principled protagonist Mr. John Thornton. (For that matter, David Lodge’s reworking of North and South more than 150 years later, Nice Work, also invites attention.)

What is the source of this “intellectual inertia” afflicting our ranks? Part of this phenomenon, Skwire implies, is a troubling blend of negligence and ignorance, leading many who are interested in the subject of liberty to “trust expert judgments about the amount and meaning of the economic content of literary works.”

Another ingredient is something Skwire alludes to in her passing mention of detective and mystery fiction, but is too polite to call out by name: elitism. After all, the question is one of literature, isn’t it, and not fiction? The “L word” applies only to those works sanctified by the self-appointed police of the literati, those defenders of the canon who tirelessly strive to keep the barbarians on the other side of our gates and themselves in positions of control. Novels labeled as genre works, novels that sell to popular audiences, novels whose pages are yet to yellow with age, need not apply for inclusion. It’s ironic, however, that economists who support markets seem wary of works of fiction simply because these books have succeeded in the marketplace.

After all, it is in the genre “ghettoes” today that some of the most interesting questions are being asked about markets and their virtues. We see this if we look, for example, at science fiction – naturally, as it is the original genre of the “what if?” thought experiment and, like Adam Smith himself, a child of both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Consider the work of Lois McMaster Bujold. Her novels rest in the center of the genre’s mainstream; a New York Times bestselling author, she has won four Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards, the Mythopoeic and Skylark Awards, and a number of additional honors.

The Vorkosigan Saga she has created offers an ongoing comparison study of economic and political systems. The populations of various planets organize themselves differently and compete against each other, not altogether unlike Robert Nozick’s vision in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (although “free entry and exit” is not always a given, as one might imagine from more muscular states). The novels invite readers to ponder where innovation and progress and individual liberty appear and where they are stifled. Human life spans actually differ from world to world, due to the availability, quality, and variety of health care and education, among other services, in the different markets.

Brothers Dani and Eytan Kollin offer another example. Taking Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as their cues, they fashioned the Unincorporated Quartet (The Unincorporated Man, The Unincorporated War, The Unincorporated Woman, and The Unincorporated Future). What kind of world would we have, they ask, if people were incorporated at birth, and they had to labor in order to purchase a controlling interest of shares in themselves? How would investors’ decisions about a person’s life differ from those made by the individual herself? Tor and SyFy named The Unincorporated Man a SciFi Essential book. Obviously, some market-friendly readers were impressed, as well; The Unincorporated Man received the 2010 Prometheus Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society, and The Unincorporated Woman is currently a finalist for the same honor. These are but two illustrations. Both are current; the most recent novels in Bujold’s series and the Kollins’ quartet are 2012 publications.

Mainstream science fiction isn’t the only place where the action is, either. Bolstered by the swelling ranks of adult “crossover readers,” the young adult novel market is thriving, and some of its authors raise thought-provoking issues about government, business, and what happens when the one interferes with the other. Pete Hautman’s critically acclaimed Rash, for instance, depicts the U.S.S.A. (that is, the United Safer States of America) of the latter 21st century, in which the proactive nanny state powers its centralized economy on the fuel of prison labor – a seemingly infinite resource in a world where drinking alcohol or playing football are both punishable offenses.

Gabrielle Zevin’s young adult novel All These Things I’ve Done, a 2012 ALA Teens’ Top Ten nominee, draws on the economic history of the United States during Prohibition and the War on Drugs to create a dismal portrait of the violence and poverty of the year 2083. The story unfolds from the perspective of the daughter of a crime boss whose family manufactures a banned substance: chocolate. The bulk of Kristen Simmons’ Article 5 focuses more on civil liberties in a country in which the Bill of Rights has been replaced with the Moral Statutes, but the author makes it clear that the state gained control only because its citizens first willingly surrendered their economic liberties. And speaking of popular: the depictions of the brutal want resulting from a command and control economy and the heroism of those entrepreneurs involved in the black market are clear in the novel and film incarnations of Suzanne Collins’ uber-popular The Hunger Games.

It’s worth pointing out that authors need not be wholehearted defenders of markets to offer interesting food for thought. Saci Lloyd’s young adult (and Costa Award shortlisted) Carbon Diaries series is hardly free-market fare; the young heroine’s band, the Dirty Angels, gleefully sings its anthem “Death to Capitalist Scum” to rage-filled, rocking teens. Despite this, the series wrestles with some of the possible devastating consequences of economic regulation – in Lloyd’s case, mandatory carbon rationing.

There is, as Skwire says, “so much more material out there for us,” in fiction from the past and the present day. It’s worth pointing out that some of “us” have already figured this out; not all pro-market minds are economists, after all (says the historian) – and, for that matter, economics isn’t the only subject relevant to the issue of human freedom. What is more, some of “us” have dared to read contemporary popular fiction with a critical, analytical eye and an equally keen interest in individual liberty.

As a positive example of what to do, I nominate some of my colleagues in Harry Potter studies. Take, for example, Andrew P. Morriss, the H. Ross and Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the author of such pieces as “Why Classical Liberals Should Love Harry Potter” and “Moral Choice, Wizardry, Law and Liberty” in The Law and Harry Potter. For another example, listen to the Kosmos interview of Benjamin Barton, Director of Clinical Programs and Associate Professor of Law and the University of Tennessee, College of Law: “Harry Potter and Liberty with Benjamin Barton.” By taking seriously a series that has become the common text of more than one generation worldwide, these scholars are contributing to a growing body of exciting new scholarship while at the same time demonstrating and defending the relevance of their own pro-market positions to those who might not often be exposed to them.

Not only does fiction raise complex and compelling questions, as Skwire rightly points out, but it also shapes public opinion, serving as one of the stages on which readers develop their understandings of and assumptions about many things, including markets. This is perhaps especially true about fiction aimed at younger readers. If we are to participate fully in larger discussions about business and liberty, it behooves us to engage with the works – both from the past and the present – that reflect and inspire those discussions, and to challenge ourselves with the questions such texts pose.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. She proposes a much more nuanced view, in which critiques of the market stand side by side with favorable depictions and even sound, encouraging advice for would-be businessmen. It’s time to get beyond the clichés about literature and commerce.

Response Essays

  • William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.