I frequently hear the argument that the free market is bad for culture. Capitalism’s superior efficiency may deliver the goods, critics say, but those goods are increasingly debased and crassly commercial.
Such criticisms, however, are strangely ahistorical. In truth, the free market has fueled the development and flourishing of the arts more often than not. As Tyler Cowen argues in his book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, free-market dynamics such as the division and specialization of labor “lower the costs of creative pursuits and make market niches easier to find.” The result is larger and more diverse markets for art, which foster a variety of artistic expressions. This system stands in contrast to the one it replaced, where the artist had to conform to the tastes of a single patron.
Take the case of the novel, a relatively new literary form that developed in large part with the aid of the free market. Not only did advances in printing technology allow, for the first time, books to be widely distributed, but pioneering novelists such as Miguel de Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe were freed from their dependence on patrons and could write for–and profit from–a wide, general readership. In time, authorship became a self-sustaining and relatively independent profession; as a result, more varied and innovative works were created. (Incidentally, the opportunity for great women writers such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte to be published occurred for similar reasons; appealing directly to the market allowed them to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of literary culture.)
To be sure, much that is tasteless and immoral enters the market, but this is the fault of boorish and vicious market actors, not the market. The specialization of labor, niche marketing, and a decentralized decision-making process encourage a large variety of high-quality goods–including art–to be produced. The Acton Institute is committed to responding to cultured despisers of capitalism, and I thank you for the support that allows us to do so.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico
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