About this Issue
Western literature doesn’t really care for markets.
At least that’s the conventional wisdom, and it’s been that way for quite a while. Even Ayn Rand took time to satirize the anti-commercial prejudice of the literary set, bringing it up in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Academic literary critics sometimes seem proud of the anti-commercial stance, while those who favor free markets as a matter of policy won’t quite be comfortable with works such as The Merchant of Venice or Bleak House.
But is that really all there is? Of course not. This month, we’re going to dig a little deeper.
Our lead essayist, Sarah Skwire, contends that academics could stand a wider reading of the canon — and that libertarians have a lot less to fear than they may have suspected. Western literature’s view of commerce is complex and often highly critical, but it’s also very often quite positive. In short, she invites both sides to read with new eyes.
To discuss with Dr. Skwire this month, we have invited three distinguished authors, each of whom has spent much time engaging with the big questions of liberty, commerce, and literature. William H. Patterson, Jr. is the foremost scholar of the great libertarian science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. Amy H. Sturgis is an intellectual historian active in both libertarian activism and the fantasy/science fiction community, and Frederick Turner is an accomplished poet and literary theorist.
Bonfire of the Clichés
There is a problem with the relationship between literature and business. But it’s not the one you think.
Linda Woodbridge’s Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in the New Economic Criticism contains sixteen essays meant to establish the New Economic Criticism as a valid and important approach to the wealth of literary material that is available from “the age of Shakespeare.” Eleven of the sixteen essays use Shakespeare as their major or only literary source, and five of these are about only one play, The Merchant of Venice. Yet relying on The Merchant of Venice as the source for our image of Shakespeare’s attitude toward money means that we’re getting an impression that is about as reliable as depending solely upon Macbeth as the source for Shakespeare’s attitude towards marriage. Shakespeare wrote, after all, around 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a variety of other shorter works. And Merchant is one of the briefest plays in his entire body of work. It is one small piece of the puzzle of how Shakespeare felt about money and markets.
In the same way that Shakespeare’s works dominate our thinking about literature in the English Renaissance, the novels of Charles Dickens dominate our thinking about literature in Victorian England. The standard reference points for talking about economics in the works of Charles Dickens, which both build the case that he is anti-business—A Christmas Carol and Hard Times—total up to 141,925 words, which seems like quite a few until you remember that Dickens published more than 4 million words. That’s about 3.5%, and that’s before you start counting the short stories and the nonfiction.
In other words, what we have here is a failure to calculate.
I’m making this point not merely for the fun of being a poet who gets to pick on economists for having a non-representative sample size, but because this kind of incomplete evidence is a plague in current discussions of markets and literature and produces nothing but problems for all of us who love both.
The first of these problems is the problem of deduction by reduction. Certainly if one Googles, for example, “Shakespeare and economics” one will turn up thousands of results relating to Merchant. Similar searches on “Dickens and economics” will lead equally rapidly and often to A Christmas Carol and Hard Times. For writers on a deadline, or professors looking for a quick literary allusion to add an air of interdisciplinary verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing lecture, this may not be so dire a problem. It is not, after all, inaccurate to say that Merchant has a troubling take on what it means to engage in business, or that Scrooge is not a model employer. But for someone setting out to discover the nature of literary opinions about business or markets, it is dire indeed, because the implication of those results—or a prowl through FirstSearch or JSTOR—is that these are the works where the desired information can be found. So everyone goes hunting in the same place, and everyone finds the same things.
Sometimes such unanimity of results means what you’re finding is the whole truth, but most often it means there’s a whole lot going unexplored.
Take Shakespeare for example. University of Chicago professor Richard Strier has recently written about Comedy of Errors that it is “a world of merchants—every one of whom is honest generous and admirable. …There is not a single lie or deception, not a single crooked, devious, or dubious monetary dealing in the play. Contracts are honored, and it is a matter of shame not to do so. Money in the play is neither filthy nor corrupting. No one is self-conscious about it, and no one is either greedy or miserly. It is taken as perfectly normal not to cheat and to expect not to be cheated.” Imagine how different our thinking about Shakespeare’s economics would be if Comedy of Errors had the same death grip on our imaginations that Merchant now does.
Or take Dickens. Hard Times is certainly a vicious attack on Manchester manufacturing, but Bleak House is just as surely about the waste of potential human capital that occurs when young men are not expected to engage in the world of work, and about the character-destroying qualities of financial irresponsibility. What would our vision of Dickens’s economics look like if it didn’t begin with Scrooge and end with Coketown?
Adam Smith scholars are familiar with this challenge, of course, as the arguments one has with people over Smith’s opinions and politics can depend, more or less entirely, on whether they have read Wealth of Nations or Theory of Moral Sentiments, or which one they have read more recently. We’re all familiar with the caricatures of Smith that end up in print as a result. And solving this part of the deduction by reduction problem is simple, if time-consuming. You have to read. More. You have to read, at least, both Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments in order to make serious arguments about Smith. And to make serious arguments about Shakespeare—rather than about one particular work by Shakespeare—or about Dickens—rather than one particular work by Dickens—you have to read, at the very least, a representative sampling of their output.
The other solution to the deduction from reduction problem is to stop reading the same things that everyone else is reading. The overlap among lists of “Best Business Novels” is shocking. Spend too much time with those and you could easily be left with the impression that the only literary works ever written about business are The Way We Live Now, Babbitt, and Bonfire of the Vanities. But there are enormous untapped and unanalyzed veins of literature just waiting for the economically-minded to come read them. Lyric poetry, for example, is filled with pleasurable erotic/economics puns on words like “use” and “interest.” Murray Rothbard has pointed to detective fiction as a useful model for thinking about private policing. Contemporary romantic fiction gives us what may be the most McCloskeyan novel ever written, Loretta Chase’s Silk is for Seduction, wherein the Duke of Clevedon must learn to appreciate and even participate in the bourgeois virtues of the dressmaker heroine, Marcelline Noirot. He helps her acknowledge that her job “isn’t employment. It’s your vocation.” And by the end of the book, they have gone into business, as well as bed, together. There is more, far more, literary discussion of markets and economics out there than most of us think.
So if there’s so much more material out there for us why aren’t we looking at it? That’s the second part of our problem–a kind of intellectual inertia. Given the well-founded suspicions that free market and libertarian types have about top-down proclamations from experts, we seem oddly eager to trust expert judgments about the amount and meaning of the economic content of literary works. We seem willing to forget that some literary critics may lack a good solid background in economics and may, therefore, not be fully alert to the richness of the economic picture painted in a particular text. They may even not realize that a discussion that, to them, seems to be about politics or romance, would sound a lot different to an economist. Public choice theorists, for example, would have a field day with the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where two churchmen persuade Henry to invade France in order to distract him from a bill pending in parliament that would take church lands for the Crown. And the marriage negotiations in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle should keep economic historians and property rights theorists busy for months.
We also have to be willing to overcome that intellectual inertia and revisit (or shamefacedly visit for the first time) the texts about which “everybody says” the same thing in order to see if what “everybody says” is really true. Let’s go back to Merchant of Venice for a moment. We all know it’s anti-market, right? Everybody says so. But in addition to its extremely negative presentation of parts of the business world, the play contains some good lessons about the value of diversifying one’s investments, the importance of avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, and (as my brother, Dan Skwire, has argued elsewhere) the need for marine insurance. How about that famous anti-industrial novel Hard Times? Another look reminds us that it’s not just about the evils of Coketown manufacturers. It is also about the nefarious union organizer, Slackbridge, who willfully destroys the character and life of the honest and forthright Stephen Blackpool when he declines union membership. Get your information from the experts, instead of from the authors and their texts, and you’ll miss all of this.
Get your information from the experts and you’ll take Algis Valiunas at his word when he says Theodore Dreiser is anti-business because of his Trilogy of Desire. The trilogy is a faintly fictionalized account of Charles Yerkes who, as Valiunas notes, was “the sultan of urban street railways who helped modernize Philadelphia and Chicago and made one of the great American fortunes.” You won’t find out, because Valiunas fails to mention it, that Yerkes illegally risked (and lost) a huge amount of public funds in the stock market and then wormed his way out of prison by blackmailing politicians. One can see why Dreiser might not be a fan. One can see why those who are interested in keeping corporations and government out of each other’s pockets might want to read Dreiser for themselves.
But the problem with the whole debate over whether literature is pro-market or anti-market is not simply that people have been reading the wrong things or not enough of the right things, or taking on other people’s opinions without testing them. It is that the whole debate is a false one. It is trying to make literature do something that it does not do well. The surest way to write a bad novel, after all, is to write it because you really want to teach someone something. A single lesson hammered home for pages upon pages does not make for an entertaining novel. Literature, particularly poetry and full-length fiction in the form of novels or dramas, thrives on subtlety and complexity. This is because it affords the space to explore a whole range of opinions and attitudes towards a problem as well as a wide set of responses and possible outcomes. To expect a novel by any reasonably good and intelligent author to be always and all ways “on message” about anything—be it business or religion or love or death—is to expect a novel to be no more than a campaign speech. And that is a foolish error. As Tyler Cowen notes, “Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.”
Literature is not for clear answers. Literature is for complicated questions. There is vital empirical data in literary texts—not data about economic fact, though there is some of that as well, but data about how people felt and thought and wrote about economic and market issues. If we care about that, if that is as important as Deirdre McCloskey has argued, we have a responsibility to find that data, to write about it, to share it, and to teach it. Otherwise, we are going to continue to drown in a sea of articles with titles like “Do All Novelists Hate Business?” and filled with assertions like “The business of America may be business, but the business of American literature in the past century has been largely to insist that the nation is, in pursuing business, wasting itself on unworthy objects.” We are going to keep hearing absolute tosh along the lines of the assertion that “The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence.” (Anyone who could say that must be unfamiliar with Dr. Johnson’s observation that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” as well as with the deep truth uttered by, I believe, Neil Gaiman, who noted that fans are always sorely disappointed to realize that when groups of authors get together the discussion is not about art and culture, but about royalties and contracts.)
If we don’t do this empirical work, if we allow others to set the terms of this debate, if we accept the same old assessments of the same old sources, if we simply and weakly agree that yes, “literature is anti-market,” we are conceding a frontier that we do not need to concede. We are giving up eloquent discourse and humane arguments and weighty support that we do not need to concede. We cannot afford to surrender literature without a fight. And every time we do, we are increasingly rhetorically impoverished, emotionally bereft, and culturally bankrupt.
Three At-Risk Children of the Enlightenment
Liberty, commerce, and literature do have at least one thing in common — as we now think of these very different subjects, they are all products of the Enlightenment. This is not so surprising, given that so much else in our culture is a product of the Enlightenment.
Liberty is obvious. Our ongoing preoccupation and continuous engagement with liberalism — however the concept may have mutated and modified over the centuries — reflects that the word originally meant the concern for liberty. The liberalism we now call “classical liberalism” was the philosophy of liberty, and that is the bedrock foundation upon which we shift so uncomfortably nowadays. Because it is bedrock, however, it is too often buried, and for that reason the modern concern with liberty has had to take another name, libertarian.
The Enlightenment conception of liberty was less Romantic-individualist than we are accustomed to thinking of it now. The Encyclopedists and the gentlemen (for the most part) of the English and the Scottish and the American Enlightenment essentially invented the notion of individualism that was later nuanced so excruciatingly by the romantic stories of exemplary sufferers that run from Young Werther to Mimi and Rodolfo. Not that these stories stopped appearing in 1890, but the trope had less originality in the twentieth century, which tended toward imitation of a story too good to pass up and good enough for one more retelling. But in the eighteenth century, the gentlefolk of the Enlightenment took their individualism hot from the press, and they did so within the context of another new-old idea — that of “the public.”
Of course, to them “the public” meant that group of the educated and the informed who made up a tranche across classes and even across cultures sometimes. Their idea of the public was more like the Junto study groups Benjamin Franklin put together among his fellow artisans and tradesmen than like the salon society of European aristocrats—in other words, the enemy. It was not comprehensive and all-inclusive; nor was it supposed to be. But it was an idea that informed the century or so of reading and discussion that gave rise to classical liberalism. The struggle against the aristocracies of Europe, whether aristocracies of war or aristocracies of church, were struggles to end the dominance of class granfalloons. Keep that in mind whenever you think of Thomas Jefferson’s letter about the “natural aristocracy,” that of talent.
These mostly men of the new public read their Addison and their Steele and their Swift in The Tattler and in the other newspapers of the new literature and the new opinion at the new coffee houses that were even then birthing insurance companies and stock exchanges. They were engendering commerce in the new mode that was being brought into existence even as the old world tore itself apart in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). The arts reflected— as they always do—the new mode of public life. You can still listen to J.S. Bach’s celebration of the coffee houses of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century in his Coffee Cantata or his secular motet about the comforts of his tobacco-pipe. Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson recently finished a monumental trilogy called The Baroque Cycle that is concerned with all the coming together of liberty and science and commerce in the context of this old-world-passing-away (The first half of the first book, The Confusion is a gargantuan retelling of Voltaire’s tiny wisp of a satire, Candide).
For science was an essential part of the mix, too. Like liberty and commerce (and even literature), science is also a product of the Enlightenment. We can even assign it a definite birth date to modern science: November 28, 1660 (Happy 402nd this fall!), the date on which the Royal Society was founded. These founders pledged to follow the philosophy of Francis Bacon and value only the result of experiment — which set them apart from the Churchmen’s theory-ridden natural philosophy. In John Locke’s hands, Bacon’s experimentalism became Empiricism — and the Enlightenment was under way.
Rationalism was also a hallmark of the Enlightenment, and it really became possible when Bacon’s ideas became prominent. The great social movement that preceded the Enlightenment was the reforming of religion from Medieval Catholicism. Purifying the church had an associated sense of self: the Puritan was personally charged with bringing about God’s will. The artisans and merchants of the new world were doing God’s work in the holy mission of commerce, and continued to do God’s work the next century with tobacco and coffee (and chocolate) in hand. It is a commonplace of American political theory that our individualism comes out of the Puritan tradition — but it is Puritanism put through a refiner’s fire, with all the godly dross burned away. The Puritan stands as God’s hand on Earth; the Enlightenment philosophe stands as his own value.
And these elevated individuals were interested in their own origins and status. The new individualism brought into existence a new literary genre, the novel, which went hand in hand with the romance through the nineteenth century. The romance, which gave its name to the entire period — the Romantic era — is a literary form about social standing, concerned with loss of status and the formation of societies; the novel is a literary form about the formation of an individual mind.
The distinction we now think important between High literature and Pop literature is a very recent evolution, dating from the end of the nineteenth century, when improved printing technology, high-speed presses, fast inks, and the invention of cheap, wood-pulp paper broadened out the definition of “the public.” But literature as a concept did not exist in the modern sense — that is, as a branch of language art distinct from useful or purely utilitarian writing — before about 1795.
The Enlightenment was a powerful and glorious new form of culture, transforming post-Medieval traditions in unexpected ways. Along the way it took in Romantic individualism, unleashing artistic and economic powers that were unprecedented. The slave trade, and then slavery itself, was banished from the west and doors opened on possibilities that were dazzling for these creatures of Prometheus.
But anything that grows also dies; for every Goethe there is a Dickens, pointing to the hard fact that so much of Victorian prosperity is grounded in the suffering of children. The Enlightenment achieved a kind of perfection of the human spirit — But of course, evolution does not stop there; perfection is never good enough. The very coherence of the Enlightenment sensibility shaped the coherence of its dialectical challenge. In fact, the dialectic was defined by Hegel for just that reason: the individualist thesis of the Enlightenment calls its antithesis into existence and shapes the form it takes. In place of the rational individual came the worship of the blood, with the state as the form of the Hegelian world-spirit. The mad rationalism of the Directoire was answered first by Empire and then by the failed democratic revolutions of 1848. The Romantic era wound down a hundred years later in the disillusionment and spiritual paralysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” – which itself was dialectically answered by the Führerprinzip — and by a living dialectical as the disillusioned exile Karl Marx sat down in the Reading Room of the British Library.”
We live in another end period now: the old world is visibly, palpably, passing away. The Enlightenment has been set aside in this country; it just does not cooperate too well with the nanny state, with the imperial presidency or with neocon globalist agendas. The drive to roll back the Enlightenment entirely kicked into high gear on September 12, 2001 — and it continues to accelerate.
And what comes next?
If the lessons of history mean anything at all, the next wave will be a dialectical reaction against the deadening hand of neocon globalism and the nanny state. Of some kind.
But it may not be a recreation of the best years of the Enlightenment. Too much blood has spilled on both sides of the great cultural divide. But for the civil values of the Enlightenment to shape the nouvelle vague, they must be there, and prominent in the public debate.
Yes, in an era more polarized, more ox-goring uncivil, than anything in the last hundred years or more, it is precisely literature, liberty, and commerce that must come to the fore; we must repatriate these lost and at-risk children of the Enlightenment. Do it “for the children.”
The Economics of Shakespeare… and His Critics
Sarah Skwire’s perceptive essay nicely describes the situation that faced me, and that I was attempting to remedy, when I sat down to write Shakespeare’s Twenty-First Century Economics (Oxford University Press, 1999). In my book I traced the evolution of Shakespeare’s economic thought through his sonnets and many other plays, including the Henry plays, several of the comedies and tragedies, and two of the last plays, thus attempting to rectify the tendency to cherry-pick The Merchant of Venice for Shakespeare’s economic opinions.
How to read this greatest of all literary geniuses after two centuries of scholars and critics who, from totally different standpoints, roundly despised the commercial culture of which Shakespeare, the great Elizabethan media tycoon, was so vital a part?
English literary criticism began in the eighteenth century when university-educated gentleman scholars (often with bourgeois ancestry and money) founded their great journals, such as The Spectator, The London Magazine, The Critical Review and the Edinburgh Review, implicitly challenging the old aristocracy for the mantle of cultural leadership. To prove their refinement, they had to emulate and surpass their superiors in rank in the genre of contempt for money and trade. They must be above all base commercial interest, not because—like aristocrats—they already had ancient wealth, but because of their membership in the morally nobler republic of letters.
And they were, in fact, very good critics on the whole, as evidenced by the work of Pope, Johnson, Addison, Hazlitt, Coleridge and others of their ilk. But their blind spot was the “dark satanic mills” of capitalism that were already on the brink of making England and the nascent United States the freest, wealthiest and most egalitarian societies in the world. Some of the intellectuals of the time, like the bona fide aristocrat the Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, and the framers of the American constitution, were well aware of the importance of commerce as the foundation of any practicable free society. But they did not, on the whole, write literary criticism.
When the first English departments arose in Britain in the nineteenth century—English literary scholarship and criticism as a legitimate academic discipline—they had to do so in the teeth of the traditional fields of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew literature. And as the field developed into the twentieth century, and the universities expanded to take in a flood of new students from the middle and lower classes, the gentleman scholars (who were never very numerous) were edged out by a new breed of bright modernist lefty intellectuals. They hailed from the grammar schools, often without a family history of literary study and the comfortable love of the classics that comes with it. Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim is a fine fictional study of this process of change. The G.I. Bill had a similar effect in the United States. The angry young men (and women) shared only one thing with their gentlemanly predecessors: contempt for business, trade, and finance. But their contempt was not aristocratic or even pseudo- or wannabe-aristocratic (though it was important to them to be seen as culturny, as the Russians say). They despised capitalism on ideological grounds, and wanted to bring it down, as it, Marx averred, had brought down feudalism.
So, as Skwire points out, they selected for praise only the most anti-capitalist works in the oeuvres of the great writers—or rather those that could be construed as such. Sometimes, as I will show later, they actually distorted them by their interpretations, whether consciously or unconsciously. When dealing with great works that could not be fitted into the anti-capitalist story, they either simply ignored those aspects that wouldn’t work for them and concentrated on psychological, moral, or aesthetic issues, much like their gentlemanly forebears—or they castigated the writers as pawns or masters of the oppressive hegemony of money, power, and culturally massaged knowledge. Writers were either closet revolutionaries or dead white Eurocentric phallocentric logocentric males.
Shakespeare was naturally a principal battleground for this Manichean struggle. And The Merchant of Venice is, ironically, the fulcrum of the conflict. I say ironically because it was precisely in the period that National Socialism was in the process of liquidating the Jews as “capitalist bloodsuckers” that the critics were turning the play into an allegory of economic oppression and class struggle. What I showed in my book was that the critics simply had not grasped the plot of the play—they had blanked out what would not fit into their schema of it. They called it a “problem play” when the problem was their own. What was the problem? It was that they had four interpretations of it, each of which satisfied their preconceptions, but which radically contradicted one another:
1. Evil capitalist Venice hounds poor Jewish Shylock to death.
2. Anti-Semitic racist Shakespeare unjustly paints Shylock as an evil capitalist, vs. good interest-free proto-socialist Antonio and patriarchally oppressed but liberated Portia. (Capitalists are evil but Jews are not necessarily capitalists.) We should share our money like gay Antonio and feminist Portia, not charge interest for loans like (unjustly labeled as Jewish) capitalist money-breeder Shylock.
3. Racially tolerant Shakespeare depicts Shylock as forced by anti-capitalist Venetian Christian anti-Semitic prejudice to become an evil capitalist to support himself, thus tragically bringing upon himself the stigma of evil capitalist.
4. Perhaps ignorant Shakespeare does not realize how evil capitalism is after all, but wiser modern critics with the benefit of hindsight can recognize how Shakespeare has, with his poetic insight, innocently and unwittingly uncovered the evidence to condemn his proto-capitalist position.
These interpretations plainly have one assumption in common, an assumption that is the root of the confusion: the evil of capitalism, in essence the practice of charging a rate of interest for the use of one’s money by another (interest when one does it oneself, usury when someone else does it to oneself). But in the play what actually happens is that Shylock refuses to take interest payments on the loan he proffers, both at the outset of the play and then later at the trial. Antonio, who initially, and very uncapitalistically, gives interest-free loans to his friend, ends up lending out at interest the half-share of Shylock’s estate of which he has been made the trustee on behalf of Shylock’s heir, his daughter Jessica. Antonio has obviously repented of his earlier precapitalist ways, by which as a mercantilist (a distinction apparently invisible to the critics) he had conducted his trading adventures (uninsured and with no risk management).
If the play ends happily, at least for some, it is because Venice has reluctantly adopted the free-market egalitarianism and anti-racist policies that are characteristic of capitalism. Far from being racist, the play evidently takes it as perfectly suitable for the Moroccan prince to woo Portia, for Italian Christian Lorenzo to marry Jewish Jessica, and for Launcelot the servant to be expected to make an honest woman of the negro girl he has gotten pregnant. And it is the free-market ethos of Venice that forces the unwilling prince of that city to grant fair hearing to all the characters. Furthermore, Shakespeare gives us in the parasite Gratiano a portrait of a Venetian racist almost as repulsive that other one, Iago, who torments heroic black Othello to death in the eponymous play. Gratiano, as his name implies (“gratuity”), is the essence of that snobbish insider old-boy network of free favors and gift exchange that has always been the enemy of the free market.
The critics are also blind to the historical implications of the fact that the play focuses upon the important change in European economic ethics, in which interest (or by its nastier name, usury) was gradually becoming acceptable. It was only when interest was permitted that banking could free up capital for true economic and technological progress, manage the risk of productive entrepreneurship, and eventually enfranchise hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Significantly, Dante consigns both usurers (who in medieval scholastic terms make breed that which by nature should not) and homosexual lovers (who in the same terms put organs meant to breed with to use for unnatural purposes) to the same circle in Hell. So Shakespeare’s solution to the competing claims of male-male and male-female love at the end of the play is, like his qualified acceptance of the value of capitalist finance, a distinct revision of the Sharia-like morality of the past.
So the critical history of The Merchant of Venice is an elegant example of the way that great literature, in itself almost always liberating to the human soul and the human community, can be distorted into supporting socialistic control. Luckily, all is not lost; a new generation of libertarian literary critics is setting the record straight. A fine example is Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, a collection of essays edited by Stephen Cox and Paul Cantor (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), which extends the sort of discussion I have outlined here to a variety of important literary works.
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.
Turner and Patterson: Reclaiming the Enlightenment
Frederick Turner: The issue that I’d like us to address is this. As Bill says, the Enlightenment classical liberal position, despite Reagan and Thatcher, has become a minority view in our culture–even an amusing eccentricity for the popular press when it features the Libertarian party and Ron Paul. Bill also points out that those ideas need to be kept alive until the present nanny state has bankrupted itself.
The big mistake that classical liberalism made, however, was to abandon the realm of culture–the arts and literature–to the various apostles of Blut und Boden, heroic class struggle, “caring” statism with its Arts Councils, and the special interests of sexual, ethnic, religious, regional, and lifestyle minorities–all of whom regarded rational debate, markets, the ethics of civility and respect, and individualism as the enemy. The Republic of Letters fell because it came to ignore the arts and literature, which were immediately claimed by Nazi, communist, fascist, and socialist forms of modernism and postmodernism.
The challenge now is to recover a robust realm of art and literature that recognizes the deep beauty of human liberty, rationality, and enterprise (science fiction is a promising holdout in this respect).
There is very little patronage–in the form of endowed prizes, periodicals, educational institutions, museums, presses, commissions, etc–for arts that flout the anti-Enlightenment consensus. Beauty has been saddled with the label of kitsch. If our novels, poems, movies, paintings, plays and architecture all implicitly tell us to pay more taxes to support “fairness” and “progressive” social activism instead of creating the wealth and technology that will open up everybody’s future, that’s what we are going to get.
William H. Patterson, Jr.: Quite agree with Fred’s sentiments here. When lit’ry people let down their hair at conferences, one of the big laments is how big a gap has opened up between what for want of a better term we shall call “theory” and “practice.” Deep in their cups (tea, presumably), these academics will sometimes go so far as to admit that there is actually very little connect between the academy and the intellectual life of the nation, and that academic life is more pragmatically viewed as a gigantic job fair, with placement and advancement the prime considerations as to what may and may not be said.
Follow the World or Change It?
Amy Sturgis’s essay pushed several buttons for me, and David Brin’s post “Do Sci Fi Attitudes Reflect Our Times?” dovetails neatly with the conclusion of her essay: science fiction certainly does reflect the world it is created in. In fact you can make a strong argument that science fiction has always gained its relevance from the fact that it addresses its world of experience through the lens of Otherness — if it weren’t addressing the world we all experience, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining at all.
But it is noteworthy that, like the real world it is embedded in, science fiction is also going through an Endarkment, so I hesitate to draw the same degree of comfort from it. I enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s books as much as the next skiffy reader, but they are the mainstream of what is essentially a dead genre that has been defined by her (and lest this be taken as a criticism of Bujold in particular, I have to say that the best recent example of skiffy endarkment is John Scalzi’s extraordinarily dumbed-down reboot of H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy series).
Because of the market conditions that surround genre publishing of all kinds, all genres that have a bit more than pure “stroking” to them — which certainly goes for the mystery as well as science fiction genres — struggle with the two uses to which art can be put: to soothe and lull, gratify and affirm the reader’s values — or else to challenge and energize. Note that I did not say “two kinds of genre fiction”: this is what can be done with art, not the essential nature of the art itself; art that is complex, multi-layered and so forth — in short, art that has the same kind of values we associate with “literature” — helps the reader along more than the simpler kind. But even quite minor art, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, can have its edifying uses, if that sort of thing is of interest.
Science fiction in its revolutionary mode creates models of change-aspects of the real world. Theorists of science fiction prattle about how sf rises out of the birth of modern science, and I politely snort in that general direction. Modern science had been around for more than 150 years before science fiction came about. Heck, even future–scene setting didn’t come about as a literary invention until 1750 or so. What did take place just before modern science fiction came about (conventionally 1818) was the American and then French Revolution, the most tumultuous and shocking and fearful social upheaval of all known history. (OK, I’ll give you the invasion of the Golden Horde if you wish). That mad excess of rationality, in which social institutions were turned upside down and overnight, and the map of Europe deregled within less than a decade, was the incitement for science fiction: a new tool was needed to think about that particular unthinkable.
And that is what science fiction does.
Art that is not revolutionary is deadening.
A Naturalism of Hope
Frederick Turner writes, “The challenge is to recover a robust realm of art and literature that recognizes the deep beauty of human liberty, rationality, and enterprise … ” Hear, hear.
And of course, we tend to forget that art and literature that is not, as Ayn Rand had it, “anti-life” was around all through the dark days of the twentieth century, even during the dominance of academic forms such as abstract expressionism in painting and serial and aleatory music — and did not have to be ideology-top-heavy. The non-verbal arts may be leading the way, as I note that the so-called “neo-Romantic” movement in painting and in serious music are producing some intriguing work (though I don’t think there is anything like a transcendent work of genius to come out of it yet (but, again, it’s early days…) (I can’t quite see Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” in that role, though there’s certainly an unseemly amount of gushing about it in some circles).
In literature, we’re not going to get a literature of human aspiration again until we get artists who feel it again — and feel it overridingly. At the moment there is no real market for that sort of thing — and no such market is likely to emerge until what is loosely called the “New York Publishing Mafia” breaks up and is buried so far under that not even its zombified corpse can unearth itself. There are hopeful movements in that direction, but the sad fact is that the fifty to seventy year old conventions of the ironic novel are set in concrete.
“What you Yanks lack,” an elderly English science fiction writer told us once, “is a decent sense of despair.” Well, that remark gave me a sense of despair, all right: This eminent practitioner did not seem to realize that he was doing nothing more than privileging one set of literary conventions over others—and that, as literary conventions, none is better than others; you can get good art out of the romance as readily as out of the ironic novel. Science fiction did hold out for a very long time indeed, and that is a matter for hope, surely: it’s a commonplace of literary history that the prestige forms of one era come out of the subliterary forms of earlier eras. We can look back on Wordsworth’s theoretical preface(s) to Lyrical Ballads and see that his “real language of men” owed more to broadsides and street songs than to any such naturalistic speech. Indeed, I would like to find a collier anywhere who wanders lonely as a cloud among the daffodils. Literary progressives always take up the same tattered banner of naturalism, no matter how unnatural the conventions they want to work in may be.
And that suggests that for us to get that literature of hope, people have to see that hopefulness as naturalistic. Fortunately, what is seen as naturalistic is in the eye and ear of the beholder; if we had to wait for it to become actually natural, we’d be outlining our hands on cave walls still.
Economics and the Humanities: It’s Time to Cross the Disciplines
Fred Turner and Amy Sturgis have neatly delineated another pair of problems surrounding the efforts to breathe new and more liberty-inspiring life into the same old discussions of business and literature. Turner speaks from experience about the difficulties of finding ways to negotiate deep-seated disagreements with the weight of critical history. Sturgis voices an equally experienced and well-founded frustration with the elitism of “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.”
Centuries of literary criticism and snobbery seem aligned against those who suggest that perhaps there is space in literature for markets, and individual liberty, and a state that is not the source of all good things. And many academics, book reviewers, and journalists seem deaf to the suggestion that perhaps that space is already populated by works we need to reconsider (as Turner so ably does with The Merchant of Venice), or take more seriously (as Sturgis does with her look at science fiction and young adult literature), or acknowledge the existence of (as I have done, here and in a recent APEE paper, with early twentieth century women’s fiction and with contemporary romance fiction). Piling Turner’s and Sturgis’s Pelion atop my Ossa makes a fairly dispiriting picture. Have we all simply read with such ardor and avidity that we are madly tilting at literary windmills?
In the absence of the vivid coffee house/Royal Society/Enlightenment culture praised by William Patterson, how are we to accomplish change in what our culture produces and in how those cultural products are understood?
I think all of our essays here have suggested a range of possible answers, but I want to note that there is one significant possible solution that we have, as yet, not discussed. After my initial essay was published at Cato Unbound I had a certain number of emails and Facebook posts from friends saying, more or less, “Read more? More? Come on, Sarah. I’ve got 30 books on my nightstand, a list of books to be reviewed that’s as long as my arm, and that’s just the stuff from within my field! You want me to pick up the complete works of Dickens, all of Shakespeare, Melville, and every bit of contemporary genre fiction as well?” Naturally I do. My degrees are in English literature. As Fred can attest, this is how we roll.
But given that not everyone considers a day spent reading John Donne’s complete sermons as refreshing as a day at the beach, I suggest, instead, that we begin seriously to exploit gains from trade. In other words, let’s do some real interdisciplinary work. The co-authored kind. Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity, Michael Watt’s Literary Book of Economics, the novels of Russ Roberts, and countless conversations I’ve had with economists and friends suggest to me that there is a strong interest from the economics side of this equation in exploring literature from a free market angle. Cox and Cantor’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty, the Harry Potter scholarship Sturgis references, and the discussion here evince equal interest in these questions from the humanities side. In fact, I recently read an interesting article about the property rights debate in Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode.” People are approaching these issues, individually, from both sides of campus. It just seems difficult for us to find each other. It is, in other words, “a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.”
Now, I hesitate to suggest that a government agency should be created whereby humanities scholars and economists are paired up upon the receipt of their degrees and told to go forth and multiply their publications. I do think, however, that one very good way to get good humanities scholarship that contains good economics, and good economics that contains good literary scholarship, is for similarly minded scholars from these disciplines to find each other, find texts that intrigue and excite them, and find the questions that they are, as a team, well suited to consider. The 21st century coffeehouse of social media has made this kind of connection easier than ever, and we ought to exploit its power.
There are problems facing that sort of work, of course. At the moment, I don’t know of a journal that focuses its attention on interdisciplinary work from the humanities and economics. But then, it wasn’t that long ago when no one had thought of a journal like Literature and Medicine and the idea of scholarship in the “medical humanities” would have seemed absurd. Co-authored articles are undervalued in literature departments as entries in tenure files. And it can be tricky to find conferences where that kind of radically interdisciplinary work can be presented.
I think the game, in this case, is well worth the candle. The more work there is of this kind, the easier it is to find support for a journal, to raise interest in conference panels, to collect papers for edited volumes. The more work there is of this kind, the more able we are to draw attention to the cultural productions that do speak of liberty and responsibility, of free minds and free markets.
All Is Not Lost
We seem to be moving as a group toward the idea that the failure of classical liberal ideas to get a hearing in the literature of our times may have a solution. Those ideas are alive and well in the popular “sub-literary” genres of science fiction, detective stories, westerns, romances, action novels, and “juvenile” fiction. The generally left-wing literary academy pulled off a bit of a coup in so classifying literature that was not advocating its favorite ideas and lifestyles. “Genre fiction” generally embodies classical liberal themes of individual responsibility, earned respect, reward for courage and good work, personal integrity, loyalty, a questioning but faithful allegiance to tradition, and mistrust of politically correct bureaucratic rules (think Dolores Umbridge, the smarmy sadistic headmistress in the Harry Potter series).
During my own recent studies of epic grand narratives from all over the world (soon to appear under the title Epic: Form, Content, History) I was struck by the way that the new generation of our own times has so thoroughly opted against the “mainstream” novelistic universe, with its implied acceptance of “political correctness,” the social construction of reality, the need for “self-esteem” and a therapeutic rather than moral judgement of behavior. Instead, the youth culture has turned to the ancient heroic and epic themes, in action comics blockbusters, multi-user Dungeon games, rock concerts, creative anachronism, and so on. “Epic” is a big buzz-word among them.
Interestingly enough, there is a hard-headed understanding of market forces in these genres–in the games you have to earn your promotion to a higher level by hard work and gold pieces (or pay a Chinese GP farmer to earn it for you) and the super-hero is often opposed to corrupt city authorities or totalitarian national governments. Individual moral clarity trumps the relativism of a “caring” State. The Hunger Games pits hardworking locals against an effete bicoastal mainstream-media bureaucracy. Students will flock to classes on myth, ancient epics, grand narratives, and hero tales as if they had been deprived by their elders of their birthright.
So all is not lost.
The Pieces of a Shattered Esthetic
A very interesting set of ideas, Fred.
I have this theory that there was a thriving new esthetic coming together, across art forms of all sorts, before World War I, but that collapse of the 19th century political framework provided such a traumatic shock that it’s taken most of the next hundred years to recover from it—and that some of the recent neoclassical movements in painting and in music (of which genre literatures as they “mainstream” themselves are a major part) are a moderately sophisticated attempt to pick up the pieces of that shattered esthetic, constituting a “jump around” the High Modernist movement(s). Robert Heinlein seems to have been saying something like this quite deliberately in Stranger In a Strange Land: his mini-lecture about how to look at a Rodin sculpture is a dead giveaway (Rodin was one of the principal figures in the evolving esthetic of “The Moderns”). Certainly science fiction has been mainstreaming itself for the last thirty years or more—a process that could not occur without the active cooperation of the general readership. And as Northrup Frye noted, the prestige forms of one era frequently rise out of the subliterary forms of prior eras.
Turner Replies: I love your idea about the new esthetic that was forming before WW1. Perhaps it was aborted by the sheer massacre of the young men at the Western Front who would have have brought it to fruition and given Europe a new lease of creative life. The ones that stayed behind and the traumatized survivors created Modernism instead. And the women, like Virginia Woolf, disillusioned with the male madness of the war, began to look in new directions altogether–but they had to win the right to a decent education first.
Skwire Replies: There’s a major boom in women’s fiction between the two wars, much of which is resolutely entrepreneurial in its focus. This isn’t surprising, given the tragic loss of educated professional men and the attendant increasing numbers of women in the workforce, but it’s an under explored area–probably because it’s often work thats from the unjustly maligned genre of the romance novel *and* because it’s material that is written by and for women. I recommend the publications from the English press Persephone Books–with a particularly enthusiastic plug for Dorothy Whipple’s novel, High Wages.
Widening the Net
I agree with Frederick Turner that “all is not lost.”
Let me offer a case in point. For several years, one of my standard lectures on the summer seminar circuit for the Institute for Humane Studies was called “Artistry Before Agenda.” During that talk I lamented the quality of so-called “libertarian speculative fiction,” pointing out that the same names every year won awards for works that preached to the choir and demonized persons of other ideological persuasions (imagine the pro-state central planner spending his free hours molesting children) without encouraging readers to think. How would this “movement” ever be more than a cottage industry? Who would be persuaded or challenged by such books?
I no longer give that talk.
Why? Organizations such as the Libertarian Futurist Society widened their nets and made concerted efforts to read and discuss and draw attention to a broader range of fiction. They invited into the conversation fellow travelers who, while not self-identifying as “libertarian,” are penning quality novels that clearly wrestle with relevant and thought-provoking issues about individual liberty, including markets.
Guess what? Some are good. Really good. Yes, of course, Sturgeon’s Law applies here, but it applies everywhere. What matters is the quality of the 10% that rises to the top. The quality here inspires hope. So, too, do new innovations in the industry, from the proliferation of small and medium-sized presses to the advent of e-publishing, which are making it possible for marginalized voices to find new avenues of expression.
If you consider this year’s finalists for the Prometheus Award for Best Novel, you’ll find a New York Times bestseller and a Kindle-only e-book publication, works written expressly for adults and works aimed at young readers. The result of this widening of the nets is multifold. For one thing, the authors from “outside the movement” are raising the artistic bar for some of the more complacent novelists who previously lived the life of big fish in the small pond of libertarian speculative fiction. More to the point, this shift highlights the fact that we who care about markets are not as alone as we thought, and there are others with different traditions and backgrounds and affiliations who nevertheless agree with us on some key points.
Perhaps most importantly, this intentional move has helped reach a larger audience in the name of liberty. When Cory Doctorow accepted the 2009 Prometheus Award for his novel Little Brother, his acceptance speech thrived on the ‘Net, finding its way to avid readers who were unfamiliar with the LFS, the Prometheus Awards, and perhaps even the term “libertarian” itself.
This encourages me.
The other half of the equation—finding and uniting informed, like-minded, and multi-disciplinary scholars willing to use the lens of markets to analyze literature in this and other genres—is the challenge to which Sarah Skwire rightly draws our attention.
Ayn Rand, Capitalism, and Romanticism
Was Ayn Rand right that romanticism is the proper literary reflection of capitalism? I like to work by referring questions to the nature of the genre.
The romance in its most basic form is a symmetrical story of personal status lost and then restored (see Northrop Frye’s excellent study The Secular Scripture). What I’ve noticed is that if you break that symmetry, the story made from the Descent phase of a romance is a classical tragedy: there is no return from the nightmare world, and the anagnorisis (recognition) is the point of the fall. On the other hand, the story made from the Ascent phase is a classical comedy, and the most enduring trope of the comedy is the marriage — the founding of a new proper community or society, to give the social status which is the subject matter of the romance.
Certainly there are elements of romance story structure that echo the experience of personal entrepreneurship — the risk and hard work corresponds neatly to the descent phase and recomplications of the struggle in the nightmare world; the hope of commercial success, in which the struggle pays off, corresponds to the ascent phase and restoration –
– but that is only one aspect of the human activity of commerce. Certainly it is a story that bears retelling, but it is not the only appropriate story that can be told about liberty and commerce. As nearly everyone has pointed out, there is a certain overdeterminism of what attitudes are fashionably associated with the modern novel, going back as far as Trollope — but surely the formation of the mind and the personality of the entrepreneur has the potential to be artistically satisfying, and that seems to call for a novelistic treatment. Rand herself embodied this theme in her giant melodrama, Atlas Shrugged (also, be it noted, a science fiction work), in what is to my mind the finest part of that book — the battle for the soul of Henry Reardon.
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.