Sarah Skwire asks whether the Victorian era literature is any more of a highpoint of the romantic view of politics than the post-World War II era. I would maintain that we can find plenty of examples of skepticism with regard to the political sphere in both eras. Michael Watts points this out in his magnificent literary anthology for economics, especially in his chapter on “Government Failure and Public Choice.” This chapter is comprised of two excerpts, one from Democracy: An American Novel by Henry Adams (1880) and the other from Good as Gold by James Heller (1979). Watts tells us that “Initially published anonymously, Adam’s novel was one of the first major literary works to suggest that the American political experiment was not always or uniquely blessed with a consistently public-spirited sense of democracy. Instead, the political process is shown to be dispiritingly similar to how business is conducted in other walks of life” (p. 178). That, of course, is the founding assumption of public choice theory. Watts goes on to explain “Heller’s novel shows a Washington not fundamentally changed from the place depicted one hundred years earlier by Henry Adams, although the scale of the bureaucracy has expanded at a mind-boggling rate” (p. 183). Watts makes an even more interesting point that can be applied to current issues being debated within the academy today such as climate change and freedom of speech. Watts asserts that since Adams’ time, “[a]cademics have also become a larger part of the scene, but they prove not to be so different from ordinary businesspeople and politicians – except that they are perhaps more naïve” (p. 183).
Watts’ anthology also includes selections that criticize the ability of government to fix market failures. Government attempts to solve income inequality were ridiculed in the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961. We see in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward, published in 1968, the terrible effects of the nationalization of health care. Finally, an excerpt from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is included to illustrate the consequences of trying to organize society on anything other than the basis of self-interest. The parallels between Atlas Shrugged and public choice theory have also been well documented by Bryan Caplan.
I would conclude that yes, there are many examples of a romantic view of politics in both Victorian era and post-WWII literature as Ross Emmett has pointed out in his essay. However, if we look hard enough, there exists a healthy dose of skepticism throughout history as well.