Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Culture of Liberty

The last two works of Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity both argue that culture is the vital element to a society adopting free markets. Indeed, one must have a culture of liberty to have political and economic liberty. This seems to be the thing missing in people’s attempts to get political and economic liberty. We too often think that we need to go right to the top and make political changes there. This is ironic considering the fact that one of the bases of our support for economic liberty is the realization that the most efficient, wealth-producing system is one that is a bottom-up spontaneous order. It seems logical, then, that we target society in a bottom-up fashion as well. And this means changing the culture. But how does one get a culture of liberty?

First, one does not get a culture of liberty through propaganda. You have propaganda when you place politics before art. Propaganda is Important and is, therefore, big and dull. Nobody takes propaganda serious except the propagandist. So it is important that propaganda is avoided.

I am sure that there will be those who will point to Ayn Rand’s novels as the prime example of how I am wrong. But Rand’s novels actually prove my point. Yes, The Fountainhead and, especially, Atlas Shrugged, have their famous speeches – however, one will note that these speeches 1) come at the end of the novels, after the reader has been drawn in by the plot and the characters, and 2) are in fact central to the plot itself. We are willing to put up with Galt’s speech only because we enjoyed the excitement of the train racing down the newly laid Rearden metal tracks and the mystery of the disappearing creators, and because it clarifies what is going on and why.

This brings me to my second, related point: a culture of liberty can be established only with an arts and humanities of liberty. We need poets, novelists, playwrights, song writers, and even musicians and visual artists who have an underlying ideology of liberty creating works of art. Please note that the art must come first; the underlying ideology will come through on its own, in the world view, in the plots, in the characters. We must remember what Bastiat said, that, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Within the arts, propaganda is an inept defense. It shows that the ideas presented are not natural, that they cannot be naturally represented in works of art and literature. Thus, it is important that the work of art be beautiful first and foremost. Among such works I would of course include those of this year’s Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa and poems – including two epic poems – of Frederick Turner.

Another thing that is important is that we have pro-liberty artistic theories. Aesthetic and literary theory is dominated by Marxist interpretations when it comes to the analysis of the political and economic elements of the arts and their production. However, there is good news on this front. First, we have Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s book Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which acts as an introduction to the field of free market literary analysis. To that I would humbly add my own essay on “The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts”. Then there is the theoretical work of Frederick Turner, such as Natural Classicism, Beauty, The Culture of Hope, Shakespeare’s Twenty-First Century Economics, Tempest, Flute, and Oz, and Natural Religion. These works could go a long way toward establishing a literary theory of liberty based on the concept of beauty.

Finally, we need more pro-liberty philosophers, providing the moral, metaphysical, epistemological, political, ontological, etc. foundations on which a culture of liberty must be established. It is easy to list the Austrians one should read: Mises, Hayek, Polanyi, and Rothbard, among others. More broadly, one should also read J.T. Fraser’s works on the philosophy of time, Aeon Skoble, Nozick, Acton, Adam Smith and the other Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, and, if I may humbly add once again, my own Diaphysics. Works of philosophy provide the intellectual foundations for liberty and, thus, for a culture of liberty.

Philosophy, theory, and the arts and literature all help establish a culture of liberty precisely because they are the humanities. They help to establish the fact that liberty is deeply human, humanizing, and humane. Or, at least, they could and should. We have seen these areas dominated by inhumane, anti-liberty, anti-humanistic, anti-liberal ideologies much more than by the kind of humane-pro-liberty, humanistic, liberal ideologies necessary to establish a culture of liberty. Yet this does not have to be the case. If we begin targeting the culture – by creating great works of art, plays, film, novels, and philosophy, and by patronizing those arts, attending those plays and films, buying those novels and works of philosophy, and talking about them – then we can establish the necessary conditions for political and economic liberty to dominate in our world.

(I thought, in light of Gabrielle's last posting, I would share this piece I wrote a few months ago, since it's on the same theme.)


  1. I see that someone's post is rocketing to the top of the popular posts lists! :-)