Reasons for Optimism

Yank that I am, I evidently lack the decent sense of despair which Patterson’s English friend so strongly recommended. I should be, I suppose, a good deal crankier than I am over the state of contemporary culture. After all, I spend most of my time trying to remind people that the Enlightenment is a shockingly modern phenomenon, and that some of us simply aren’t ready to leave the 17th century yet. I should be in a tizzy over the fall of the Republic of Letters, and the use of art to lull us to sleep rather than to shake us awake.

And yet somehow, I remain resolutely cheerful.

Maybe this is because when I see reality television shows like Project Runway where fashion designers compete to show their own collections and get funding to start/support their own businesses, or Shark Tank where entrepreneurs compete for venture capital, I’m not so worried that our cultural productions are killing our entrepreneurial drive. (Ask me about the government and I get more worried, but that’s another essay for another time.)

Maybe it’s because of the runaway success of the decidedly anti-Statist and arguably anarchist Young Adult best sellers in the Hunger Games trilogy. Or the unschooling stance and praise for quirky individualism of the Mysterious Benedict Society.

Maybe it’s the music videos by John Papola, Russ Roberts, Remy, and Dorian Electra. (It’s a new age of political satire, and the YouTube video is our broadsheet, my friends.) Maybe it’s the internet memes that pop up every day—Iron Man and Batman posed above the slogan: “Money: Best Superpower Ever.”

Maybe it’s Hilary Mantel’s success with novels about Tudor politics—novels crying out for a good solid public choice exploration of the problems inherent in political action. Or the rise of self-publishing, which does nothing, I admit, to disprove Sturgeon’s Law, but which goes a long way to hearten those who like emergent orders instead of top-down organization.

While I’m happily domiciled in the 16th and 17th centuries a lot of the time, when I look up for a few minutes I see culture that is comes out of that most useful, painful, and gainful of all processes—creative destruction. Yes, it ain’t like it useta be. And it won’t ever be again. But it is not yet what it will be. And, looking at so much of what we have now, looking at what we’ve done with brand-new tools for individual creation, production, and distribution of works of art, looking at the way humans always and ever want to build and create and play… I see a lot of reason for optimism.

There is an enormous amount of energy at work for free people, free markets, and free minds. There is a new and unequaled set of tools available to creators and to critics. We must make use of them. We have to come down out of the empyrean and stop kvetching. If there are barbarians at the gate, they’re making some damn good art out there on the plains, and it’s time to let them into the city, already.

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.