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Literature & the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture

Review of Literature & the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, ed. Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010).

In recent decades, literary criticism has championed several schools that disavow common-sense economics in favor of more private and personal agendas. The “personal is political” formulation long ago crept into English Departments, at the expense of more traditional understandings of the warp and weave of Western Civilization. Beginning in the mid- to late-twentieth century, students were subjected to successive waves of New Criticism, Marxist Theory, Queer Theory, Feminist Theory and Deconstructionism – all guilty of squeezing square pegs into round holes in order to further individual reputations and engineer social change rather than increase knowledge of the human condition through the arts.

The human condition is, no matter how much theorists would prefer to believe otherwise, economic as well as spiritual, sexual and political. After all, even atheist transsexual Marxists need to trade something for food, clothing and shelter, do they not?

A valid question for the creators and critics: What provides the best economic model to ensure the happiness of the seven billion inhabitants of this earth? And what of the billion or more characters inhabiting our planet’s literature?

This is the theme pursued by Paul A. Cantor and Stephen Cox in their collection of brilliant essays in the Economics of Literature & Liberty. The essays take free-market economics as the basis for examining, for the most part, well-known literary works by the likes of Cervantes, Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, H. G. Wells, Thomas Mann and others. One need not be conversant in any of the works under consideration to appreciate the depth of literary and economic knowledge displayed by these authors. Nor do readers require more than a perfunctory background in economics. All heavy lifting is provided by the critics involved in the project.

H. L. Mencken wrote that the sine qua non of all good criticism should be its ability to stand alone as a piece of art regardless the qualities inherent in the object of the criticism. Cantor, Cox and the other critics whose essays appear in Economics of Literature & Liberty attain this goal effortlessly by providing insightful analyses and informed explication du texte, providing ripping good yarns in addition to artful criticism and sound economics.

In so doing, Cantor, Cox, et al., rescue great works of art from the maw of most contemporary criticism by portraying art as the mimetic celebration of spontaneous order, marginal utility and creative destruction. While no work of great literature can be called rightly “spontaneous,” Cantor goes to great lengths to detail how the externalities – to use an economic term – of an author’s zeitgeist contribute to his or her inspiration and execution of art, as well the depiction of the triumphs and tribulations of the characters he or she creates.

The creative act is about as top-down as any human endeavor can get. Artists corral characters, devise plots, choose settings and themes. This fact could account for why so many artists favor central planning. Some, for example Ezra Pound, advocated so enthusiastically for central planning as a gift to artists that they inflicted permanent injury on their artistic legacy. Others, notably Arthur Koestler, E. E. Cummings, Stephen Spender, John Dos Passos and a host of others subsequently recanted their former beliefs in “the God that failed.”

Cantor portrays artists – similar to the rest of us – as economic beings in terms that are familiar to readers of Mises and Hayek:

[F]or the Austrian School, the entrepreneur becomes a kind of artist. Indeed, the Austrians stress the creativity of the entrepreneur. Like an artist, he is a visionary, a risk-taker, and a pioneer, and if he is to be successful, he will generally be found running counter to the crowd, or at least ahead of it. Thus, with Austrian economics, one need not worry that linking artistic activity with economics will have a reductionist effect. Because the Austrian School views economic activity as creative in the first place, from its perspective, to show an artist implicated in the commercial world is perfectly compatible with asserting his freedom and individuality.

But the picture of artist as central planner, moving his created (fictional) beings around as he may from the commanding heights of Mount Parnassus, stands against the usual image of the artist as the hyper-individualist, listening to no voice but his own. Cantor, Cox and the other critics collected in Economics of Literature & Liberty recognize this, and stress the individuality of the artist. In a discussion of the serialized novels of the Victorian Era, Cantor writes:

What we have learned from economics and biology is that in spontaneous orders, which develop or evolve over time, some imperfections are compatible with an overall coherence. This insight can in turn show us a way out of the aporia into which the conflict between the New Criticism and Deconstruction threatened to lead us.

And this:

Austrian economics, because of its methodological individualism, would suggest focusing on how those engaged in the [creative] process acted as individuals. It would look at how individual novelists approached serialization, how individual members of their audience reacted to their work, and finally at how novelists in turn reacted individually to these reactions. An Austrian economist would not expect either all novelists or all members of the novel-reading public to act or react in the same way; he would instead expect individuality and even idiosyncrasy to come into play at all stages of the process…. Leaving room for elements of contingency and uncertainty leaves room for elements of creativity in the artistic process, even if it is no longer conceived as the achievement of purely solitary creators.

As such, the creative process involves both the artist and the active minds of his audience. Contrast this with another economic-based school of literary thought, Marxist theory, which assumes that reading a novel is something done by passive zombies narcotized and beaten down by capitalism.

Space doesn’t permit an overview of the essays wherein Austrian theory is applied to individual literary works, but, rest assured, there is much to recommend. The socialist apologist H. G. Wells receives a critical comeuppance from Cantor in his remarkable essay, “The Invisible Man and the Invisible Hand: H. G. Wells’ Critique of Capitalism.”

I particularly enjoyed Stephen Cox’s examination of select works by Willa Cather, including Death Comes for the Archbishop, and only wished Cox had cast his brilliant critical net wider to encompass this particular novel more fully. That’s high praise indeed, praise easily extended to the entirety of this remarkable volume.

Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.