Monday, May 30, 2011

Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic

Over at Prometheus Unbound, I published a piece on Henry Hazlitt as literary critic. Readers of this site should be interested in what I have to say about Hazlitt's criticism. Here is the opening paragraph from that piece:

Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some twenty-eight books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out twenty-four years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great nephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Free Markets on Film

Free Markets on Film by Robert Formaini from The Journal of Free Enterprise. A nice set of summaries of pro-market films. It being Hollywood, there are obviously not many.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Transnational Law: An Essay in Definition with a Polemic Addendum

I have published an article with the Libertarian Alliance (London, U.K.). The paper is "Transnational Law: An Essay in Definition with a Polemic Addendum," Occasional Paper of the Libertarian Alliance, Legal Notes No. 52 (2011). The paper relies heavily on literary theory & criticism to make points about transnational and polycentric law. The paper is available here. (You may also download a version here at SSRN.) Below I've pasted an abstract.

What is transnational law? Various procedures and theories have emanated from this slippery signifier, but in general academics and legal practitioners who use the term have settled on certain common meanings for it. My purpose in this article is not to disrupt but to clarify these meanings by turning to literary theory and criticism that regularly address transnationality. Cultural and postcolonial studies are the particular strains of literary theory and criticism to which I will attend. To review “transnational law,” examining its literary inertia and significations, is the objective of this article, which does not purport to settle the matter of denotation. Rather, this article is an essay in definition, a quest for etymological precision. Its take on transnationalism will rely not so much on works of literature (novels, plays, poems, drama, and so forth) but on works of literary theory and criticism. It will reference literary critics as wide-ranging as George Orwell, Kenneth Burke, and Edward Said. It will explore the “trans” prefix as a supplantation of the “post” prefix. The first section of this article, “Nationalism,” will examine the concept of nationalism that transnationalism replaced. A proper understanding of transnational law is not possible without a look at its most prominent antecedent. The first section, then, will not explore what transnationalism is; it will explore what transnationalism is not. The second section, “Transnationalism,” will piece together the assemblages of thought comprising transnationalist studies. This section will then narrow the subject of transnationalism to transnational law. Here I will attempt to squeeze several broad themes and ideals into comprehensible explanations, hopefully without oversimplifying; here also I will tighten our understanding of transitional law into something of a definition. Having tentatively defined transnational law, I will, in section three, “Against the New Imperialism,” address some critiques of capitalism by those cultural critics who celebrate the transnational turn in global law and politics. Although I share these critics’ enthusiasm for transnational law, I see capitalism - another hazy construct that will require further clarification - as a good thing, not as a repressive ideology that serves the wants and needs of the hegemonic or elite.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Andrew Ferguson on "Converting Mamet"

Although I do not read The Weekly Standard unless James Seaton has contributed an article or review (read Seaton's review of Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox's Literature & The Economics of Liberty at this link), I was pleased and intrigued by this recent article by Andrew Ferguson that addresses the political conversion of America's most famous living playright, David Mamet. Ferguson opens the piece with this:

Three decades ago David Mamet became known among the culture-consuming public for writing plays with lots of dirty words. “You’re f—ing f—ed” was a typically Mamet-like line, appearing without the prim dashes back in a day when playwrights were still struggling to get anything stronger than a damn on stage. Mamet’s profanity even became a popular joke: So there’s this panhandler who approaches a distinguished looking gentleman and asks for money. The man replies pompously: “ ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ —William Shakespeare.” The beggar looks at him. “ ‘F— you’ —David Mamet.”

Some critics said his plays were pointlessly brutal. As a consequence he became famous and wealthy. It didn’t hurt when it dawned on people that many of his plays, for all the profanity and brutality, were works of great power and beauty, and often very funny to boot. When people began to say, as they increasingly did by the middle 1980s, that the author of Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo and Lakeboat had earned a place in the top rank of the century’s dramatists, no one thought that was a joke. He took to writing for the movies (The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog), won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his masterpieces (Glengarry Glen Ross), and moved to Holly-wood, where he became a respected and active player in the showbiz hustle.

Ferguson goes on to describe a speech at Stanford in which Mamet expressed his disenchantment with higher education:

Higher ed, he said, was an elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought. He compared four years of college to a lab experiment in which a rat is trained to pull a lever for a pellet of food. A student recites some bit of received and unexamined wisdom—“Thomas Jefferson: slave owner, adulterer, pull the lever”—and is rewarded with his pellet: a grade, a degree, and ultimately a lifelong membership in a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way.

“If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we’re training ourselves not to see cause and effect,” he said. Wasn’t there, he went on, a “much more interesting .  .  . view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?”

This led to a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible. The implicit conclusion was that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle—a “shuck,” as Mamet called it.

Mamet says the following about capitalism:

“I never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad,” he writes now, “although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings.” He was always happy to cash a royalty check and made sure to insist on a licensing fee. “I supported myself, as do all those not on the government dole, through the operation of the Free Market.”

When I was an undergraduate studying at Birkbeck College of the University of London, through a program run by my alma mater, Furman University, I attended the production of one of Mamet's plays, Edmond, which starred Kenneth Branagh as Edmond. I was of course familiar with Branaugh because of his various Shakespearean roles, but I was not familiar with his nude body, which is what I saw displayed quite awkwardly and prominently, or so it seemed from the third row. Apparently Branagh's, ehem, unmentionable draws quite a crowd.

I recommend Ferguson's delightful and provocative profile piece. For interesting Austrian-economics-and-literature takes on Mamet, see Troy Camplin's post here and Stephen W. Carson's post here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Austrian Economics and Literature Poetry Writing Contest

Austrian Economics and Literature is having a poetry writing contest!

The subject of the poems must be, of course, on economics. The poems will be judged on both the author's demonstration of economic knowledge and on poetic form and skill.

Here are the rules:

1. The subject of the poems must be on economics. Naturally, metaphorical treatments are acceptable.

2. Poems are to be submitted to me, Troy Camplin, through my email address:

3. Co-bloggers cannot enter.

4. All judgments are final and cannot be contested.

5. Deadline for entries: June 30, 2011

6. The winning entry will be posted on Austrian Economics and Literature and the author of the winning entry will receive a signed copy of my book, Diaphysics.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Economics is the sexiest and most romantic of professions

A little silliness from Modified Rapture arguing that "Economics is the sexiest and most romantic of professions." Why do I bring this up here? Well, there's a little literary analysis about a third of the way down. Marlowe making an economic point.

I would have to argue with the main argument of the post, though. Are economists really sexier and more romantic than poets? :-)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Immanent Criticism of the Immanent Critics

On my blog Interdisciplinary World, I posted a practically identical version of A Culture of Liberty that I titled there as Why I Would Rather Write Poems and Plays. There, a frequent commentor, Winton Bates, made the following observation:

When I think of literature as a spontaneous order, one of the characteristics it seems to have is that it tends to develop in ways that are critical of what writers see as the established order. I can't claim to have thought very deeply about this, but it seems to me that any story with a plot suggesting that all is well with the world would not be particularly interesting. So, that might explain why the culture of liberty declined over the last 150 years or so.

It might also explain why the most popular literature of liberty over this period seems to be forward-looking i.e. suggesting that existing trends are taking us toward a dominant order that will be a serious threat to liberty. Again, I am making generalizations that might not stand up to close scrutiny.

However, if the pattern that I see is an accurate observation, then the question arises of whether we would expect it to continue in future. Perhaps we can expect a lot more interesting stories to emerge from the threats to liberty that people currently face in their daily lives.

Winton lays out a few interesting ideas for papers on the history of literature. Please note that he argues that one of the roles of literature is as immanent criticism of the prevailing order. If the dominant system is captialism (or is perceived to be capitalism), then one should not be surprised to find works of literature criticizing that system. This comes about because, after all, there has to have some sort of problem for there to be a story at all. He also suggests why much literature that is located in the author's present (including the author's lifetime) is often anti-market, while much "libertarian" literature is science fiction.

In times and places where economic liberty is under severe threat, or liberal society has been almost completely destroyed (such at the Soviet Union), so we see more pro-market writers? Keeping in mind censorship and officially recognized literature, of course. Which means we must look to the more underground works, or those of emigres. With the latter, we must also keep in mind that many people do not understand the deep connection between economic liberty and political liberty (you can have the former without the latter, but not the latter without the former), and so end up supporting many of the very economic policies within their adopted country as they were escaping.

This issue of ignorance also raises questions about the nature of immanent criticism. Understanding is not required to engage in such criticism. Much such criticism is in fact done from a great deal of economic ignorance, or from mere folk economics (there's a book there: Folk Economics and Its Influence in Literature). Those economic theories that come closest to folk economics are thus most likely to be supported by the vast majority of people who have not been educated in economics (and, sadly, many who have been schooled in economics -- I refuse to say "educated," since you cannot be educated in economics if you accept folk economics, no matter how much schooling you have). So much immanent criticism is likely to not even be valid. Yet, it can have a profound influence, and drive a culture in illiberal directions. Sad to say, many literary authors have been most guilty of these very things.

Can we expect our literary writers to get the details of economics right? After all, economics is a specialized field of knowledge. The first thing I would point out is that when we read a science fiction novel, we expect the author to get the science right. Physics is a specialized field of knowledge, yet many science fiction authors have learned physics sufficiently well to create realistic works of fiction, that stick to the science. Should we not expect other authors to do the same if they are going to bring up issues of economics in their works? Well, that brings me to my second point, which is that there are certain fields of knowledge -- those typically most deeply intertwined with the human experience -- in which everyone thinks their opinion matters simply because they are human beings. The same person who would not dare express an opinion about the nature of atoms, not knowing any quantum physics, will nevertheless go on and on about how we need to tax companies that outsource jobs, raise the minimum wage, raise trade barriers, etc., even though they are equally ignorant of economics, meaning they don't have the foggiest idea what will really happen if those things were in fact implemented. Everyone is a psychologist, everyone is an economist, everyone is a sociologist, and everyone is a moral philosopher. Point out everyone's ignorance on these things, and you risk the fate of Socrates.

So why, then, should we concern ourselves with the economic opinions of literary writers? We should concern ourselves precisely because they are immanent critics, even if they never intended to be such (typically they did so intend). We need to analyze their views and try to understand why they held them, and the ramifications for what it is they said and represented in their works. The literary Austrian critic must act as the immanent critic of the literary order.

The fact is that critics do in fact influence authors. It is thus important that our kind of criticism take place. It is important to help us understand works of literature, it's true -- but the fact that what we uncover and discover can influence other writers to create more liberal works is of equal importance. I don't want to overemphasize the importance of critics, to be sure. But each work is created from a kaleidoscope of influences -- we should want to be one of those shapely colors.


Peter Klein points out an example of game theory in a work of literature, Walter Miller’s dystopian classic A Canticle for Liebowitz. I believe, though, that the example is one of failed Mutually Assured Destruction.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Using Economics and Literature to Understand Changing Perceptions About the Individual's Relation to Society

There is an interesting article on teaching economics and literature by by W. B. Sockwell and Zeynep Tenger, both of Berry College, titled Using Economics and Literature to Understand Changing Perceptions About the Individual's Relation to Society. In this article they discuss the benefits of teaching a class using both economic and literary texts. They observe that both economists and literary authors are interested in asking, "What is the role of the individual and what is the best way to organize society?"

This is a somewhat different focus than that with which we typically deal here, but the fact is that there are a variety of ways of approaching connecting literature and economics, and their approach is one to be commended and recommended.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Creative Destruction

The forest fills with underbrush, dead-
Wood tangling even shrew legs, tiny bones
The evidence, if you could see them. Red,
Burned in the sun, the grass dries on the stones.

A gale whips up the grass and dust, a cloud
Emerges, lightning strikes, the flames leap out,
The heat and flames create a dance -- they're proud
Of what they're doing, live without a doubt.

And in their aftermath, the ground is black,
The brush is gone, the trees, alive, are charred --
Destruction's all that anyone can track --
They're sure destruction like this should be barred.

But with the rains, the black gives hints of green,
And with the newfound light upon the ground,
New life can spring up and at last be seen,
And even deer have room enough to bound.

The space between the trees is filled with pink
And scarlet, tall fringed orchids share the field
With cardinal flowers taller still. Both link
A newborn network, building a new yield.

And soon the trees are leafing out and shade
The space beneath -- a new environment
Is born, where bluets bloom, ferns fill the glade,
Each using what the last sun-flowers lent.

And changes will continue, changes will
Explore the possibilities that grow,
And over time each space will find its fill
Of every difference we could ever know.

Unity and Integration in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Readers may be interested in Edward W. Younkins' essay in Libertarian Papers Vol. 3, Art. No. 5 (2011), Unity and Integration in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Creative Destruction and the Anxiety of Influence

In "Can Capitalism Survive?" Schumpeter points out that creative destruction acts as a kind of competition which

acts not only when it being but also when it is merely an ever-present threat. It disciplines before it attacks. The businessman feels himself to be in a competitive situation even if he is alone in his field [...}. In many cases, though not all, this will in the long run enforce behavior very similar to the perfectly competitive pattern. (45-6)

Because of the threat of new ideas, methods, etc., there is in a real sense no such thing as monopoly (unless enforced by government, of course, through barriers to entry, etc.).

But what does this have to do with literature?

Howard Bloom argued that writers have what he called "anxiety of influence." Another way of putting this is that writers believe themselves in competition with other writers, current and past. Of course, you also have to be influenced by many of those same authors, so you find yourself in the strange situation of loving your competition. And then there is the ever-present threat of someone new coming along. So even though one's output is quite literally a monopoly, since there is nobody who could ever writer what you wrote as you wrote it, there is still a feeling of competition. Like with the businessman feeling the gusts of creative destruction, even as no actual competitor exists (oh, but they may someday soon!), the author feels the presence of so many (often imagined) others. But this feeling of their presence is what drives quality -- in art as in economic goods.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cantor Interview

A 2001 interview with Paul Cantor on Austrian Economics and Culture in Austrian Economics Newsletter.

You have to love that he argues that being a contemporary Marxist literary critic is "like writing on literature and astronomy from a Ptolemaic perspective."

Cantor on why so many artists are socialists: "They hope that socialism will liberate them from their greatest fear: being judged by the common man."

"Kafka is the great chronicler of the absurdities created by modern government."

And finally, a reminder: "There’s lots of work to do [in Austrian economics], even among us noneconomists."

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fight of the Century: Hayek vs. Keynes

Rap is literature:

Artists' Capitalist Savings

Mises argues that there are

two classes of saving: plain saving and capitalist saving. Plain saving is merely the piling up of consumers' goods for later consumption. Capitalist saving is the accumulation of goods which are designed for an improvement of production processes. The aim of plain saving is later consumption; it is merely postponement of consumption. Sooner or later the goods accumulated will be consumed and nothing will be left. The aim of capitalist saving is first an improvement in the productivity of effort. It accumulates captial goods which are employed for further production and are not merely reserves for later consumption. (Human Action, 530)

Consider the situation of the artist. Being a great artist is a full time job; if it only at best your part time job, you can only accomplish so much. It can certainly be your first job, while the job that pays the bills is your second full time job. In order to do one's artistic work, one has to accumulate capitalist savings. Look at how Mises defines capitalist savings. Clearly the artist has to accumulate savings which improve his production processes, to improve the productivity of his effort. It's not about consumption, but production. To do artistic work, the artist has to accumulate capital. How does the artist do that? What does that capital consist of? These are questions one could and should investigate. Naturally, there will be differences for different arts. Even within literature, there are differences between what the poet and the playwright need. Wallace Stevens could be the Vice President of a bank and still be one of the greatest poets of the English language. Could he have been a playwright with that job, though?