Friday, December 31, 2010

Creativity Requires Dissatisfaction

Mises' insights regarding what impels human action are applicable to any kind of human action, including creative action. Why does the creative artist create? Because they feel dissatisfied. There is something they want to be in the world that is not in the world, and they create to put it there. They may succeed -- and thus create nothing else. Or they may fail and fail again (or, as Thomas Edison said in regards to all his attempts to invent the lightbulb, discover a large number of ways that don't work) -- and thus create and create and create. Competition among artists also compels creation, of course, since competition is of course a discovery process, as Hayek rightly observed. But let us stick with this idea of the artist as dissatisfied.

For example, I find little in Mises to disagree with -- a few details one can attribute to what was known and not known at the time, but nothing of real substance in regards to his ideas. With Hayek, though I find myself agreeing, disagreeing, sort of agreeing, and all sorts of other variations. He's right in interesting ways, and wrong in interesting ways. He's always willing to throw out an idea that's not fully formed or thought through, and is then equally willing to have someone develop it -- or explain why they reject it. Mises is marvelous if you are looking for great quotes supporting what you believe; Hayek is marvelous if you want to think in new ways and develop more ideas. Reading Mises is satisfying. Hayek is much more generative of scholarly work, precisely because he is so unsatisfying. This is a lesson in economics consistent with Mises:

We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is easger to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims as bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be prefectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care. (Human Action, 13-14)

Peter Boettke has argued that Mises is the greatest economist to have ever lived. (You can listen to his podcast at EconTalk.) Yet, most Austrian economists seem to deal with Hayek. Why? Mises is satisfying, and thus does not drive one to act; Hayek is unsatisfying, and thus impels one to act. That's why scholars love him. Dissatisfaction creates disequeilibrium which drives growth and creativity. I read Mises and say, "Yes, yes, yes, and yes!" And then I turn to Hayek so I have something to write about.

One may argue that I am in fact using Mises now. Yes, but I am inspired to use him prcisely because I am using him to discuss literature, which creates a disequilibrium in the attempt to put the two -- Mises and literary analysis -- together.

Let us consider this from an artist's point of view. I read Camus's "The Plague," and am satisfied that there is nothing more that can be done. It is a marvelous piece of fiction. And it is the pinnacle of that style of novel. Yet I read anything by Faulkner (another Nobel Prize winner), and I'm inspired. There is so much that is good -- and so much that can be rethought and rewritten. His novels have inspired writers from Milan Kundera to Toni Morrison to Cormac McCarthy. He makes me want to write novels and short stories. Some works are satisfying -- one reaches an equilibrium with them; other works are dissatisfying -- one is in disequilibrium after reading them and, thus, in a creative space. Creativity only occurs when a system is in a far-from-equilibrium state. One work may create that; in other cases, it is the combination of several works. Life, too, invades. The creative artist is in fact always already in a far-from-equilibrium state, always ready to create. The smallest input can create a butterfly effect and set the artist off to create a new work. Thus, works which may be satisfying to the average reader can be inspiration to the creative artist.

The creative person -- whether the creative artist or the inventor -- is not just dissatisfied with what he has. The creative person is dissatisfied with what is available. The creative person is dissatisfied with what exists -- and sets about trying to create that thing with the world is, in his estimation, missing. His actions, of course, create dissatisfaction in others, who now know about this newly created thing they had never seen and never knew they wanted until it was invented. Thus the creative person plants the seeds of dissatisfaction in the world, creating the very conditions for human action.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Free to Choose Your Own Ending

Individual choice comes to film with Turbulence. It reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. This raises some questions, though, regarding the nature of storytelling. For example, consider the fact that in a standard narrative, we are watching to learn what the characters will do, which teaches us something about other minds and other choices. However, if we are deciding what the characters will do, what is the role of narrative? Does film become something more akin to a video game? Certainly such films could be interesting from a game-theoretic perspective -- but it would tell us more about the audience than the film itself, would it not? Are there other issues one could raise?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Mises on the Creative Genius

From Human Action, 139-140:

The Creative Genius

Far above the millions that come and pass away tower the pioneers, the men whose deeds and ideas cut out new paths for mankind. For the pioneering genius(12) to create is the essence of life. To live means for him to create.

The activities of these prodigious men cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation. The genius wants to accomplish what he considers his mission, even if he knows that he moves toward his own disaster.

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him. The Austrian poet Grillparzer has depicted this in a touching poem “Farewell to Gastein.”(13) We may assume that in writing it he thought not only of his own sorrows and tribulations but also of the greater sufferings of a much greater man, of Beethoven, whose fate resembled his own and whom he understood, through devoted affection and sympathetic appreciation, better than any other of his contemporaries. Nietzsche compared himself to the flame that insatiably consumes and destroys itself.(14) Such agonies are phenomena which have nothing in common with the connotations generally attached to the notions of work and labor, production and success, breadwinning and enjoyment of life.

The achievements of the creative innovator, his thoughts and theories, his poems, paintings, and compositions, cannot be classified praxeologically as products of labor. They are not the outcome of the employment of labor which could have been devoted to the production of other amenities for the “production” of a masterpiece of philosophy, art, or literature. Thinkers, poets, and artists are sometimes unfit to accomplish any other work. At any rate, the time and toil which they devote to creative activities are not withheld from employment for other purposes. Conditions may sometimes doom to sterility a man who would have had the power to bring forth things unheard of; they may leave him no alternative other than to die from starvation or to use all his forces in the struggle for mere physical survival. But if the genius succeeds in achieving his goals, nobody but himself pays the “costs” incurred. Goethe was perhaps in some respects hampered by his functions at the court of Weimar. But certainly he would not have accomplished more in his official duties as minister of state, theater manager, and administrator of mines if he had not written his plays, poems, and novels.

It is, furthermore, impossible to substitute other people’s work for that of the creators. If Dante and Beethoven had not existed, one would not have been in a position to produce the Divina Commedia or the Ninth Symphony by assigning other men to these tasks. Neither society nor single individuals can substantially further the genius and his work. The highest intensity of the “demand” and the most peremptory order of the government are ineffectual. The genius does not deliver to order. Men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation. It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking.

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact for praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses
this term.

12. Leaders [Fürhrers] are not pioneers. They guide people along the tracks
pioneers have laid. The pioneer clears a road through land hitherto inaccessible
and may not care whether or not anybody wants to go the new way. The leader
directs people toward the goal they want to reach.
13. It seems that there is no English translation of this poem. The book of
Douglas Yates (Franz Grillparzer, a Critical Biography, Oxford, 1946), I, 57,
gives a short English resume of its content.
14. For a translation of Nietzsche’s poem see M.A. Mügge, Friedrich
Nietzsche (New York, 1911), p. 275.

Where does one even begin in discussing this? Being a creative genius himself, he certainly knows of what he speaks. As a poet/playwright/fiction writer myself, I can certainly attest to the truth of what he says in regards to the creative person. Of course, this creates the following problem, as explained by Mises:

As far as a special kind of labor gives a limited amount of pleasure and not pain, immediate gratification and not disutility, no wages are allowed for its performance. No the contrary, the performer, the "worker," must buy the pleasure and pay for it. (138)

Mises is here talking about people who do things like hunt, which is work for some people, yet pleasure for others (there are many such activities -- indeed, many activities of the past which were necessary for survival have become pastimes: fishing, gardening, rowing, sailing, etc.), but it is applicable to a certain degree to what he says about the creative person (he in fact says what creative people do is not in fact labor at all -- making remuneration even more problematic). Yet this leaves one with the question of what one is then to do to eat and clothe and house oneself? Naturally, there are ways to nevertheless get paid: playwrights are paid for performances of their plays, novelists are paid to publish their novels, musicians are paid for performances, etc. But the poet doesn't get paid. Neither does the scholar, directly (excepting books, but that might as well be unpaid, considering the amount of money one in fact tends to get for scholarly books). Much of what the creative person gets is prestige. That can pay off, of course -- even in monetary gain -- but it's not paid labor in the same sense. One does not pay a novelist for the work put into the novel, but for the finished product. The novelist who creates a book in a month and one who creates a book in 10 years will each get the same amount of money for sales (all other things being equal, of course).

It seems, then, that one pays for works of art in the same way as one "pays for" religious experiences, through a gift or sacrifice, as David Mamet argues. The creative person too makes a sacrifice in creating the work -- one which may or may not "pay off" in financial gain. Of course, the creative person creates regardless of financial payoff, so long as the means and time is available. Of course, many creative people will find the means and time, sacrificing in other places in life. If suffering and sacrifice were financially rewarded, the creative people of the world would have been the wealthiest. Instead, the have to hope that the zeitgeist at some point involves their work, so that others will be willing to pay for their finished works.

(For those interested, here is a poem I wrote with an economic theme.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Review and More Scrooge

An excellent review of "Literature and the Economics of Liberty" by Bruce Edward Walker. The review originally appeared in Religion and Liberty at the Acton Institute.

He has also written on Scrooge and the Ghosts of Charity, to continue yesterday's theme.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ebenezer Scrooge's Transformation from Welfare Statist to Charitable Giver

For Christmas, David Henderson gives us a lesson about Ebenezer Scrooge in the Freeman. I learned about it from Henderson's EconLog response to Krugman on Scrooge. Krugman gets the story about as wrong as one could imagine in his NYT piece.

Indeed, Charles Dickens' views on society and economics have been misunderstood for a long time. He is often portrayed as an anti-capitalist writer, but when I read Oliver Twist, I was surprised to read a story in which the government-run orphanages were presented as terrible, the criminal underclass as despicable, and in which the hero of the piece (beside Oliver Twist, of course) was a wealthy businessman. That book, at least, is anti-government programs and pro-market.

And of course David Henderson is correct about Scrooge's attitude. Scrooge argues that because the government has welfare, there's certainly no need for him to be personally charitable. Dickens no doubt was observing this change in attitude as government welfare programs were set up. Scrooge's attitude is thus the natural consequence. He does not feel the need to be generous, because others are being generous on his behalf -- with his tax dollars. His attitude: they give with my money, why should I give more? He doesn't seem to object to the presence of welfare programs, but he certainly considers them sufficient.

This attitude is in fact prevalent among supporters of the welfare state. Supporters of the welfare state have been shown to be the least charitable; those who oppose the welfare state the most charitable -- with their own money (which is the only way one can in fact be charitable). It is a shame that too many people cannot tell the difference between charity and government welfare programs. It's the kind of confusion that creates such gross misinterpretations of such great works of literature.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Oft-Ignored Mr. Turton: The Role of District Collector in A Passage to India

Click here to read my latest article in Libertarian Papers. Below is the abstract:

E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India presents Brahman Hindu jurisprudence as an alternative to British rule of law, a utilitarian jurisprudence that hinges on mercantilism, central planning, and imperialism. Building on John Hasnas’s critiques of rule of law and Murray Rothbard’s critiques of Benthamite
utilitarianism, this essay argues that Forster’s depictions of Brahman Hindu in the novel endorse polycentric legal systems. Mr. Turton is the local district collector whose job is to pander to both British and Indian interests; positioned as such, Turton is a site for critique and comparison. Forster uses Turton to show that Brahman Hindu jurisprudence is fair and more effective than British bureaucratic administration. Forster’s depictions of Brahman Hindu are not verisimilar, and Brahman Hindu does not recommend a particular jurisprudence. But Forster appropriates Brahman
Hindu for aesthetic and political purposes and in so doing advocates a jurisprudence that does not
reduce all experience to mathematical calculation. Forster writes against the Benthamite
utilitarianism adopted by most colonial administrators in India. A tough figure to pin
down politically, Forster celebrates the individual and personal relations:
things that British rule of law seeks to suppress.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Theatre as the Art of Praxeology

David Mamet argues in "Theatre" that plays are very translatable precisely because they are about plot -- action.

Ludwig von Mises, in "Human Action" argues that "the logical structure of mind is uniform with all men of all races, ages, and countries" (38) and that, therefore, praxeology is valid for all people at all times -- that it is indeed a science.

Perhaps plays are the art of praxis? Indeed, as Aristotle argues (and Mamet parrots), plays are the art of action.

This is different from the fact that action is necessary for the production of any work of art -- or to engage in it at all, if you are a member of the audience. A play presents action. As Frederick Turner has observed, to act is both to do and to pretend to do (as an actor is in one case someone who performs an action, and in another case is someone who pretends to perform an action on a stage).

What more is a plot than the problems inherent in the fact that "acting man chooses, determines, and tries to reach an end. Of two things both of which he cannot have together he selects one and gives up the other. Action therefore always involves both taking and renunciation" (Mises, 12). The audience of a play judges the characters according to both their ends, and the way(s) they go about achieving those ends. Audience members, in viewing a play, thus act as praxeologists, as praxeology studies human action to help us determine what actions are appropriate to achieve one's purpose (12). This is why one can appreciate the goal of a character, but disagree with their actions to achieve it (which makes us feel conflicted toward the character), or disagree with the goal and appreciate their actions (as one may be impressed by Iago in "Othello"). Such things add richness, complexity to plays. Of course, even abstaining from action is itself an action (Mises, 13), so works such as Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" are interpretable using praxeological methods.

To make a man act, you need uneasiness, "the image of a more satisfactory state," and "the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness" (Mises, 14). What else is this but a summary of plotted literature? If the protagonist achieves "a more satisfactory state," one has comedy; of (s)he does not, one has tragedy. More specifically, if the character reaches equilibrium -- happiness -- one has comedy; yet if the character does achieve what (s)he wants, and it results in more uneasiness in their lives rather than less, one has tragedy. If they do not achieve what they want, we just have a sad story -- a drama, perhaps. From the principles of paraxeology, therefore, we are able to derive the three basic forms of theatre. Theatre is indeed the praxeological art.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Klingon Versus Esperanto

Here is a fun article on the proliferation of two different artificial languages -- one to be spread in a top-down fashion, the other happening to spread in a bottom-up fashion. Guess which one caught on?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Paul Cantor on Literature and Making Money

Paul Cantor's lectures on the serialized novel and Shakespeare's theatre.

HT: Allen Mendenhall (who should have posted this in the main part of the blog and not hidden it in a comment ;-) )

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Greater Humanities

Here is the transcript of an interesting talk given by James Clifford about the "Greater Humanities". Two things of interest to an Austrian economics approach to understanding literature are:

The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.

1. Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.
2. Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable…
3. Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.
4. Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us-- effects of power.

You may disagree with my shorthand characterizations, but I hope you will recognize a set of intellectual dispositions, a habitus, that link the humanities, a lot of the social sciences and the theoretically-informed arts.

where he lays out what makes the humanities distinct, and how observations on positivism, in which he sites H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (1958):

Hughes, an intellectual historian in dialogue with Talcott Parsons and other leaders of Harvard’s “social relations” initiative, wrote in reaction to the 1950s boom in “social science.” His response begins with a chapter called “The Revolt against Positivism.” Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Croce, Pareto, Marx and Gramsci--the founders of modern social analysis-- emerge as non-reductive, imaginative, yes “humanistic” thinkers, concerned with the unconscious, with indeterminate behaviors and complex, over-determined motivations.

The revolt against positivism wasn’t then (and isn’t now) a revolt against science. But against a narrow, instrumentalist vision of science, a vision that fetishizes quantifiable, auditable outcomes—immediately useful (to whom?) and marketable (for whose benefit?) Does this sound familiar? I’m updating Hughes 1950s intervention for the neo-Liberal present, where we confront an economistic positivism perfectly adapted to the sink-or-swim, bootstraps (find your own grant support), privatized logics of an “entrepreneurial” system of rewards and punishments.

There are a few things of note that Austrians can and should address. One is of course the fact that the Austrians are left out of this list of anti-positivists. Another is that we need to address the consequences of the Austrian economists being left out of this list: the fact that an economic view doesn't have to be "economistic positivism", as well as the fact that the intersections between the humanities and the economy are not necessarily negative (not to mention the bizarre -- to an Austrian -- description of "entrepreneurial"). One might in fact address why they are perceived to be negative (saying they are all a bunch of Marxists over in the humanities is too easy: what experiences are they having to make them have this attitude? why?). The Austrians on subjectivism and subjective values in particular may be of particular interest to humanities scholars.

I believe Austrian economics might be in a unique position to rescue the humanities -- from both the dominating positivism of our universities and from the humanities themselves.

From the Sensory Order to the Literary Order?

How might Hayek's The Sensory Order inform or affect the way we understand literature?

One might object that this gets us too far afield from the issues surrounding the use of Austrian economics to understand certain elements in literature and literary production -- yet Hayek saw The Sensory Order as central to his work in economics and social theory (D'Amico and Boettke's objections notwithstanding). Whether Hayek thought his economics came from his ideas on the brain, or his ideas on the brain came from his economics, there might be some benefit to using his understanding of how the brain worked to understanding literature. Or should we just skip ahead to contemporary theories of the brain and have a separate area of study, such as neuro-literary studies, or Evolution and Literature?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Make Everybody Rich

Frederick Turner (who introduced me to Austrian economics through Hayek's work) wrote that if we Make Everybody Rich through embracing capitalism, it will result in a renaissance in the arts.

The Arts in a Free Market Economy

Tyler Cowan at FEE on The Arts in a Free Market Economy, in which he shows that the free market has benefited the creation of art and literature, not harmed it, as many on the Left imagine.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


I love that we are getting so many people coming by, but we need to have more discussions! :-) Discussion is the lifeblood of ideas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Paying for Art

It is popular for artists -- most of whom are Leftists or even Marxists -- to complain about the corrupting effects of money and the free market on their art. Somehow one of the best indicators of value ever invented -- money -- devalues art. There is nothing farther from the truth.

One of the great insights in David Mamet's "Theatre" is the role of money in making great plays and great audiences. He argues that for an audience to enjoy the play, they have to pay for it. More, they have to pay for each and every performance. In other words, he even argues against subscriptions, which undermine choice:

A subscription audience is a dreadful audience. It is almost inevitably sullen. Why? It has been dragged out of the house. These subscribers are not theatergoers, though they may again be, under different circumstances; they are bargain hunters, who have been sold a bargain. "Six plays for the price of five" sounds like a good idea at the time, but in practice it functions like "all you can eat," where the only way one can make sure one has gotten one's money's worth is to make oneself sick. (95)

He observes that this undermines the sense of adventure that attracts people to the theatre and makes it part of the experience. More, by buying your tickets up front, you eliminate the element of scarcity from the equation -- and if something is not scarce, it is not valued much, if at all (how much, on any given day, do you really value air -- even as absolutely important as it is?). Also, it protects the playwright, actors, and theatre from risk -- and, thus, from learning anything at all. As a result, they cannot (and will not) improve.

"Government subsidy functions similarly" (97), as observed in my previous post.

The audience has to pay, and it has to pay for each and every chosen play in order for it to be a good audience. And a good audience is one that educates an attentive playwright and actors. An audience that hates your work is still a good audience if they sincerely hate it (as opposed to being sullen for the above reasons).

The audience, in the actual theatrical interchange, must have two qualifications: (1) it must have come to be delighted, and (2) it must have paid for admittance. (105)

Why must they have paid? Because "The ticket price is a sacrifice entitling the audience" to enjoy the play:

The audience members must pay. The payment transforms them from critics to entitled consumers. In the car business they teach that "nobody walks on the lot unless he wants to but a car." The equivalent of walking on the lot is payment for admission.

The audience members coming to be delighted, and paying for the privilege, will eke form the drama the enjoyment to which they are entitled. If the drama is not enjoyable per se, they will read the program, go to sleep, or leave. (106)

More, neither the audience nor playwrights "may or can express its desires save through the unfettered operation of the free market" (120). It is one thing to say you liked something to got for free; it is another to say you liked something you paid for.

Let me give an example. My brother is an artist, and when he was younger and just beginning as an artist, he had the romantic notion that he was going to give all of his art away. People would value his art because it was inherently valuable. I told him if he really wanted people to value his art, to charge hundreds or thousands of dollars, and then it would be valued. Well, he mostly ignored me, and gave many paintings away. Yet, he also sold a few pieces to a few friends. This set up what turned out to be a perfect experiment of his theory vs. mine. As it turns out, when he went over to the homes of friends he had given art to, he could never find it displayed; but those who had paid for their works displayed the works prominently. My brother stopped giving away art piece after that.

If you fill a theatre with critics or students, you will never get the feedback you need to be a successful actor or playwright. You need a paying audience. Only a paying audience will create art that will last the ages.

David Mamet's "Theatre"

In the back of his latest book, Theatre, David Mamet (who already has a society dedicated to his work) has the following Acknowledgements:

I am very much indebted to the works of Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson, Frederich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, and to those of Richard Wright and Eric Hoffer.

Some may remember Mamet's piece in The Village Voice two years ago, Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal, in which he writes that

I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

As we can see, he has since added Hayek to that list.

So it seems we have as a fellow free market supporter (if not outright Austrian) one of the greatest living American playwrights. Not too shabby.

Anyone who even likes theatre who hasn't read "Theatre" should. But if you are a playwright, actor, director, or are otherwise directly involved in theatre, there is no question that you should read this book. For those of us interested in the economics involved in literature and literary production, Mamet has quite a bit to say in this small book. Most notably, he argues that feedback is vital to have a healthy theatre. The audience's reactions to the work teach the playwright and actors what works and what doesn't. The souls of playwrighting, then is "writing, revising, staging, revising, and starting again" (127) -- i.e., feedback, and responding to that feedback. More, he argues that government support for theatre destroys such feedback and, thus, is destroying contemporary American theatre. It results in the creation of a bureaucracy in charge of the theatre -- a bureaucracy that believes itself to be the reason for the theatre's success, meaning it will do what is necessary to expand itself, "For while the task of the artist is to create, the task of an institution is to continue" (101). With government subsidies and various tricks of the trade to get people into seats, what you end up with are two possibilities: 1) a conservative lineup of plays that won't offend anyone, or 2) a lineup of plays that cannot and will not improve because there are no consequences to either bad plays or bad performances. Neither is conducive to the development of a healthy theatre. You have to have a paying public -- paying for each and every performance you put on (rather than season tickets) -- to have the kind of useful feedback that results in well-written and well-performed plays.

Thus we see, in Mamet's work, how economics can help us to understand not necessarily how a work of literature -- in this case, a play -- comes into existence, but how a good work of literature comes into existence. You have to have audience feedback. The audience "is the only judge. If the audience members didn't laugh, it wasn't funny. If they didn't gasp, it wasn't surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats, it wasn't suspenseful" (104). And that is that. It is the audience that matters most, because they came to be entertained -- and make their judgment in their seats. "The teacher, critic, competition judge, assembly of fellow students all watch the performance in order to judge, and so their opinion, either of the moment or of the piece as a whole, is worthless" (105). If not truly worthless, they certainly provide a very different kind of feedback -- one which has little to do with the success of the piece as a work anyone may enjoy.

Yes, people come to the theatre to experience beauty, in its various guises. That is the ultimate judge. That is the economics of the theatre.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

For an Austrian Sociology of the Arts

Steve Horwitz has a good blog piece on What Austrian Economics Is and What It Is Not. In it he uses Pete Boettke's list of what makes Austrian economics distinct:

1. Only individuals choose.
2. The study of the market order is fundamentally about exchange behavior and the institutions within which exchanges take place.
3. The “facts” of the social sciences are what people believe and think.
4. Utility and costs are subjective.
5. The price system economizes on the information that people need to process in making their decisions.
6. Private property in the means of production is a necessary condition for rational economic calculation.
7. The competitive market is a process of entrepreneurial discovery.
8. Money is nonneutral.
9. The capital structure consists of heterogeneous goods that have multispecific uses that must be aligned.
10. Social institutions often are the result of human action, but not of human design.

There are a few things one can point out here. One, from the perspective of using Austrian Economics to analyze the economics in a work of literature, these stand as they are. However, there might also be some possibilities in the list for the overall analysis of literature/the arts. Some we obviously cannot use. Others, we can use with modification. Consider:

1. Only individuals choose.
2. The study of the artistic order is fundamentally about artistic behavior and the institutions within which the creation of art take place.
3. The “facts” of the arts are what people believe and think.
4. Value is subjective.
5. The system of art/literary criticism economizes (or should) on the information that people need to process in making their decisions.
6. Private property in the means of production is a necessary condition for freedom of expression.
7. Competition among artists is a process of entrepreneurial discovery.
8. Artistic/literary institutions often are the result of human action, but not of human design.

Please note that I had to eliminate only the original 8 and 9. Works of literature in fact confirm 1, as we are interested in the individual characters and what and how they choose. Much of the rest speak to a possible sociology of the arts -- the spontaneous orders of the arts I have written about. Some of the rest of these could use further development. 7 has in fact had some attention in the interest in the competition between Picasso and Matisse that resulted in their developing new ways of seeing. There is also the somewhat less-well-known competition between The Beatles and The Beach Boys, with "Rubber Soul" giving rise to "Pet Sounds" giving rise to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." This competitive elements needs much more work done. The same can be said about the relationship between private property and freedom of expression. In other words, there is a great deal of work that can and should be done in developing a sociology of the arts using the methods of Austrian economics, properly adapted.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thoughts on Where We Go

On pg 53 of Reason Papers No. 21, Fall 1996, Robert Campbell raises some interesting questions in the opening paragraphs of his short piece titled When Avoiding Scholarship is the Academic Thing to Do: Mary Midgely's Misinterpretation of Ayn Rand.

Contemporary academia is a long way fiom being a free marketplace of ideas. The customs of discipline, speciality, and faction closely regulate who is allowed to participate in the intellectual disputes of the day. Those deemed unworthy are preferentially ignored. When they can't be ignored, they must be dismissed - the quicker the better.

Ayn Rand conducted her entire career outside the university, and preferred to present
her ideas in novels. That is already a huge strike against her; taking the popular road excites distrust (if not envy) in most academics. Some labor is needed to trace the genealogy of Rand's ideas, and her closest living relatives in academia, the neo-Aristotelians, are distinctly diclasse'. Her rejection of altruism and advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism are about as welcome in most Departments of Philosophy, as calling for the disestablishment of public schools would be in Colleges of Education.

Much of this is as true today as it was in 1996, and applies not just to the ideas of Ayn Rand, but also to pro-market ideas in general, and perhaps Austrian economics in particular. Naturally, there are pro-market outlets. But when one takes that route, one is in danger of merely preaching to the choir. I have heard Pete Boettke say that it is important for Austrian economists to get published in non-Austrian journals, and that the way to do so is to just produce good economics work. This can work within the realm of scientific discourse, but it seems more difficult in the realm of the humanities, where truth claims are somewhat more ambigous than they are in the sciences.

So where does that leave those of us in the humanities who believe in heterodox (within the humanities) ideas? It seems odd to suggest that free market economics is completely heterodox within the humanities -- unless you are in the humanities -- but even something as well-established and accepted within the rest of academia as Darwinian evolutionary theory is not accepted as a legitimate interpretative strategy within the humanities, particularly literary criticism. It is as heterodox as free market interpretations of literature (while Marxism, discredited in economics and the real world, is alive and well in literary studies). So where does that leave us as literary theorists who use free market economics as an interpretative strategy, let alone Austrian economics, which is heterodox within economics?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fiction Sets You Free

For those who don't know, Russell Berman's book Fiction Sets You Free is one of the few pro-market works of literary theory out there. Spontaneous order theory is detectable all throughout the book. One could have a good time refuting most of what is said in this review, which starts off discussing another of his books that has nothing to do with literary theory -- or free markets -- which the author does primarily to prejudice his readers against the book before he even begins to review it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Deirdre McCloskey on the Arts and Economics

Economist Deirdre McCloskey on the arts and economics. Some really interesting ideas here. A challenge to artists to represent more of the world than we typically do.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hyperreality, Metaphor & Currency

I remember sitting in the James B. Duke Library at Furman University in December 2003 and pulling a book of poetry off the nearest shelf. I flipped through the book, admiring its contents and pausing over a particular sonnet that ended with a rhyming couplet. I can’t remember the exact words in that couplet; but I remember the poet rhymed “shore” with “metaphor,” and also that he was talking about a currency of sorts: sand-dollars.

The author’s point was that money is metaphor

and nothing more.

And his point begs the question: what does this metaphor

stand for?

The answer is that in a time and place in which currency has no clear referent—such as a fixed weight of gold—the metaphor signals more metaphor. The currency becomes a seemingly endless chain of signification: a repetition of an artificial worth. Pieces of paper are assigned value, and value obtains to the paper and the polis only because the polis allows it to. The paper in itself is worthless; but as a metaphor it is powerful. I’m surprised that with all its attention to hyperinflation, Austrian economics hasn’t dealt with the literary implications of currency (fiat or otherwise). Or perhaps I’m not surprised, given that literary theorists have used the term “currency” to refer to every sort of social phenomenon without regard to the complexities of market forces or central banking or monetary policy and on and on. The case can be made that gold itself is a metaphor for value, and that’s true. It is. But at least its value is tied to rarity and demand. People do not demand paper until it bears the right syntax and becomes culturally accepted as a medium of exchange: until a centralized authority coerces and convinces the polis to accept a metaphor as something more.

Paul Cantor has talked about inflation as a form of hyperreality. I have talked about hyperreality using a Baudrillardian paradigm. I did not use hyperreality to address hyperinflation, but I wonder whether such a theory would illuminate the way we talk about currency. Will couching our studies in terms of hyperreality lead us down the tired path of deconstruction toward postmodernist tactics of ideology critique? Or would it generate critical thought and theory about value and our role in creating and sustaining and exploding metaphor?

A Language-based Approach to Measuring Scholarly Impact

This method of tracing scholarly influences might be a good way to trace literary influences as well, which would contribute to creating a fuller network model of the spontaneous order of literature. It would be particularly useful in discovering the weak ties -- much lesser-known works and unconscious influences that contributed to a work's creation -- and strengthening the case for strong ties that scholars are typically able to discover pretty easily.

The Poetics of Spontaneous Order

The Poetics of Spontaneous Order: Austrian Economics and Literary Criticism - Paul A. Cantor.

Mises on Literature

Ludwig von Mises himself on History and Fiction. How might this inform an Austrian literary theory?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cowan on the Spontaneous Orders of the Arts

Tyler Cowan on the spontaneous orders of the arts, though he doesn't quite use that term. He points out that the arts are like any other spontaneous order system -- with increasing division of labor/specialization (or, more genres, in artistic language). The free market thus gives us more choices precisely because of its increasing heterogeneity. Markets are homogeneous only insofar as they provide all those choices to everyone equally.

"free trade civilizes, enlightens, and enriches"

Donald Boudreaux has an article on Free Trade and Globalization that talks about how free markets result in cultural diversification and, thus, a flowering of the arts. He notes that

Aristotle, Euripides, Thucydides, Grecian urns, the Parthenon, and most of what we rightly celebrate today about the learning and culture of ancient Athens would have been impossible had it not been for that city's extensive foreign commerce.

Athens opened up trade with the rest of the world, and flourished both economically and culturally. The reason for this is

The wealth, freedom, and diverse experiences of a commercial culture liberate artists and educators both to be more creative and to cater to the demands of the general population. In a poor society in which only a small elite has wealth and leisure, artists and educators cater only to the elite's desires. Art forms disliked by elites, as well as knowledge not useful to them, do not thrive. But as trade creates greater and more-widespread wealth, the range of tastes and opportunities that are available to support and influence art and education grows. With the elites no longer being the exclusive supporters of art, the artist who previously found no support for his musical compositions or his poetry might now find sufficient support from the middle classes. Likewise for the teacher who, earlier, found no market for his knowledge.

More, the proliferation of cultural diversity throughout the world -- often complained about by elites who liked having such things all to themselves -- is beneficial not just because of improved material opportunities, and not just because of cultural proliferation and improved artistic creativity, but because cultural proliferation results in an expansion of our morals, by helping up empathizes with others from around the world.

Review of Jeffrey Tucker's Bourbon for Breakfast

Check out for musician Michael E. Lawrence's delightful review of Jeffrey Tucker's Bourbon for Breakfast (Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2010). Read the review here.

2010 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Mario Vargas Llosa on the Tea Parties

As a writer and a libertarian, I sometimes feel very lonely in my political beliefs. I’m absolutely delighted to have discovered the recent column by Nobel Laureate in literature, Mario Vargas Llosa.

I found Vargas's column about the Tea Parties and translated it through Google translation, which made for some garbled English, but most of it remained understandable.

Here are some excerpts, with emphasis added:

open quoteBecause of his [the Tea Party's] face [is hidden(?)] below ultraconservative, reactionary, populist and demagogic, and the nonsense that can claim some of their leaders, like those who say that President Obama is a Muslim ambush that want socialism for the United States or outbursts of Mrs. Christine O'Donnell, candidate for Delaware, a former practitioner of witchcraft who has accused homosexuals have created AIDS, there are in the core of this movement something healthy, realistic, deeply democratic and libertarian. The fear of runaway growth of the state and bureaucracy, whose tentacles are increasingly infiltrated into the private lives of citizens, cutting and stifling their freedom and their initiatives, the appropriation by the public sector functions or services that society civil could take more effective and less waste of resources, the creation of striking systems of social assistance can be financed only with systematic increases in taxes, which will result in falling living standards of middle and lower classes.

These fears are not free, respond to the reality of our time and originate from problems like living in the First and the Third World. But in the U.S. have a particular resonance, as always lively touch a nerve in a country where individualism is not ever had the bad press it has in Europe, in the collectivist doctrines that have taken deep roots in its modern history. A U.S. European pilgrims came seeking freedom, to practice their religion, it was not official, to defend the right of individuals to be independent, to choose your life without any limitation other than respect for life forms others. In the purest American tradition is not the state but the citizen is responsible first of its failure or success. . . .

For a long time, this ideal design was more or less respected and worked with the extraordinary development and prosperity of the country as a result. . . .

Then, because of wars, economic inequality multiplied, reformist political action was being amended, in many ways to improve it, but sometimes for worse. And among the latter, no doubt, given that inflation elephantine bureaucracy that, as much as in Europe, has reduced the area of freedom and autonomy of the individual, resulting in shrinkage of civil society and, therefore, the responsibility of the citizen against himself, his family and social group. . . .

In modern society, where the State is God, the individual is becoming less responsible, because reality can be just him, it pushes each extra day being only a state-dependent. For almost everything: studying, heal, get a job, enjoy a safe, participate and enjoy the cultural life, retirement account with the State. The idea that that is the final destination of the evolution that has followed the situation in his country is simply intolerable for a significant part of the United States, where the idea of the sovereign individual that should not be coil or exploitation by the State. . . .

If the State is decentralized and slim, if not . . . the individual is no longer free and has become an automaton manipulated by invisible and all-powerful bureaucrats who, in the shadows of their offices, taking all important decisions concerning their fate. . . .

In many cases, they [private individuals] do better and spend less than bureaucrats. In culture, for example, here in the United States, largely, magnificent museums, operas and concerts, dance, major exhibitions, public libraries are funded mainly by civil society. True, there are tax incentives that encourage this generosity, but the main reason is a cultural tradition, not entirely disappeared, which induces people to act, take initiative to invest their money in what they think right and necessary. Unlike others, this message from the Tea Party deserves to be taken into account.close quote


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Joseph Conrad's Praxeology

Joseph Conrad's Praxeology by Cox at -- an excerpt from "Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture".

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I would like to officially welcome Allen Mendenhall and Dario Fernandez-Morera as regular contributors. Dario Fernandez-Morera contributed to Literature and the Economics of Liberty, and Allen Mendenhall writes on law and literature at The Literary Lawyer.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mises Institute

We were just mentioned on

And we are listed on their Outside Links.

Also, check out this on Paul Cantor at Mises.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa wins Nobel literature prize

Classical liberal writer Mario Vargas Llosa today won the Nobel prize in literature. Seeing as there are very few literary writers who are also supporters of the free market, this is cause for celebration indeed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Shelley, Spontaneous Order, Beauty

Rereading Percy Bysshe Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, I noticed in the first stanza that Shelley seems to be describing a spontaneous order:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats through unseen among us, -- visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower, --
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening, --
Like clouds in starlight widely spread, --
Like memory of music fled, --
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

This certainly sounds like Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand," or Hayek's Spontaneous Order. Most striking is that Shelley connects this to beauty:

Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, -- where art thou gone?

In connection to this, I would direct you to my posting where I connect beauty and spontaneous order.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the poet who said that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" in his A Defense of Poetry should have had this insight.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Beauty and the Spontaneous Order

Beautiful works of art and literature help us to both understand and live well within spontaneous social orders. Indeed, beauty may be the missing piece that has caused us to feel alienated within these orders. We do not have to feel that way.

In "On Beauty" Elaine Scarry argues that beauty brings us to justice because of beauty’s attention to symmetry, leading us to an understanding of “a symmetry of everyone’s relation to one another” (97, quoting John Rawls from "A Theory of Justice"). While symmetry is certainly part of beauty, it is in fact only one half of beauty, the other half being asymmetry. A perfectly symmetrical tree would be a ball on a column – hardly beautiful (equating symmetry with beauty also denies the fact that Japanese works, which focus on asymmetry, are also beautiful). Rather, a beautiful tree is one that has symmetry, yes, but also is ragged around the edges, uneven in its evenness, even in its unevenness. If this is the case, justice may in fact be distributive, as Scarry argues, but it cannot be purely symmetrical, as Scarry implies. Rather, it would exhibit qualities of symmetry and asymmetry simultaneously – as network theory in fact says happens in complex network systems. It seems likely that spontaneous orders are the only systems capable of exhibiting such qualities – and of doing so without prejudice. This claim would be strengthened if it turned out that spontaneous orders were, themselves, beautiful.

One aspect of spontaneous orders is that they allow for equal access to all (which is far different from equal outcome, as outcomes depend on many different things). In a truly spontaneous legal order, for example, there is equality under the law. In a truly spontaneous economic order, there is an equal ability to enter into economic transactions, broadly defined. Scarry observes that “the equality of beauty” in part resides “in its generously being present, widely present, to almost all people at almost all times” (108-9). Beauty is accessible to all, though the more engaged one is with the beautiful object, the more benefits one derives from it, the more beautiful it becomes. The same is also true of participation in spontaneous orders.

We see, using two different ways of defining both beauty and the nature of spontaneous order, a commonality: paradox. A beautiful object must be both symmetrical and asymmetrical. To have a just legal order, one must have equal treatment under the law (laws applying to all people equally), resulting in unequal outcomes. Contrariwise, to get equal outcomes, you must treat people unequally and, as a consequence, unjustly – as Vonnegut brilliantly demonstrated in “Harrison Bergeron.” The affirmation of paradox seems to lie at the heart of both the nature of beauty and of spontaneous orders. Beauty must contain both complexity and simplicity. Simple rules and feedback generate complex spontaneous orders (see diZerega, Hayek, and also Stephen Wolfram’s The Making of a New Science). Indeed, feedback, or reflexivity, is another feature of beauty. Both beautiful objects and spontaneous orders are ordered, evolutionary (changing over time), rule-based, simultaneously digital and analog, generative and creative (as Scarry also argues of beauty), scale-free hierarchies (what Turner calls heterarchies in The Culture of Hope) in structure, patterned/rhythmic, unified in their multiplicity, synergistic, novel, irreducible, unpredictable, and coherent (see Turner’s The Culture of Hope on these qualities of beauty and Christian Fuchs on these qualities of self-organizing systems). It seems, as I note in my book Diaphysics, that “there is a correlation between self-organizing complex systems and beauty. Each have the same attributes.” More, “all beautiful objects are information-generating systems. And to the extent that something is a self-organizing system, it is beautiful” (84).

If one of the problems with understanding spontaneous orders is that they are more complex than we are, we being nodes within the network, and a less complex entity cannot fully understand a system more complex than itself (Hayek, The Sensory Order, 185), then understanding the relationship between spontaneous orders and the nature of beauty (especially in regards to the internal structures of beautiful things, and how they interact to create the beautiful whole) could help us to understand the nature of spontaneous orders. More, learning to better appreciate and understand beauty – whether in nature or in works of art, music, literature, etc. – should help each of us to learn how to better live within the extended order and positively contribute to its health and growth. This then brings us back to the importance of the liberal arts. Plato saw beauty as a sort of master concept informing all the other concepts (or, ideas, to come closer to the Greek word) (Phaedrus). As we see here, there is much truth to that – and, as Keats reminds us, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). The truth-seeking orders, such as the scientific order, are more truth-seeking the more they are truly spontaneous orders – which is to say, the more beautiful they are. “Virtue aims at the beautiful” according to Aristotle (Nicomachian Ethics), and more goodness emerges out of the moral order the more it is a truly spontaneous order. And if beauty is fair, and the fair is just (Scarry), the closer the legal and the democratic orders are to being truly spontaneous orders, the more just they and the extended order will be. In fact, if beauty, truth, virtue, and justice are indeed so deeply related, it logically follows that spontaneous social orders, being beautiful, are going to generate people who are truthful, virtuous, and just – and if these are elements not typically associated with the market order, this is a failure as much of the critics of the market order as it is of the economy having yet become a full spontaneous order – or, more, the almost complete failure of money to have become a spontaneous order (which only serves to undermine the catallaxy).

If we come to embrace beauty, which is, as Frederick Turner observes, the “value of values” (Beauty), we can come to feel at home in the extended order. We evolved in the midst of an evolutionary drama – and this is precisely what a spontaneous order is (Turner, 131). We can find beauty in the social spontaneous orders precisely because they have all the qualities of the evolved, evolving natural ecosystem. Ironically, precisely as our social world has become more and more a set of spontaneous orders within the extended order, we have abandoned beauty as a value – thus cutting ourselves off from the very thing that would have helped us know how we fit in. As Roger Scruton says in Beauty, “When we are attracted by the harmony, order, and serenity of nature, so as to feel at home in it and confirmed by it, then we speak of its beauty” (72). While I would argue against the inclusion of “serenity,” certainly the other two, and the list I gave above, equate beauty and spontaneous orders. Educated in beauty, we could learn to feel at home in the universe, including our spontaneous orders.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Immanent Criticism in the Artistic Orders

The relationship between works of art and criticism evolved over time, eventually becoming a spontaneous order. In the oral tradition, the poet would have had immediate audience feedback, to which he would have adjusted his performance. The critic was the audience. IN many cased, they directly participated in the performance. When the arts became increasingly specialized, a full-fledged spontaneous order emerged. Outside of buying and selling, the readers/viewers/lsiteners ceased being critics -- precisely because there was little face-to-face feedback. The artists were freed to be more adventurous, and the professional critic arose to explain to everyone -- reader/viewer/listener and artist alike -- what it was they were encountering. In this way, criticsm provides feedback -- but the question is if it acts within the spontaneous order, or if it acts as imminent criticism which arises out of the spontaneous order of the arts. For example, Reader Response criticism makes sense as being immanent criticism if the reader is included in the literary spontaneous order. Art criticism is imminent criticism if it address the complete order. Thus, reader response, canon criticism, cultural criticism, etc. that take on the system as a whole, or at least consider individual works as parts within that whole, represent imminent criticism, while critical stances that dealt with individual works might more aptly be included within the spontaneous order itself. If we were to place this kind of criticism within the spontaneous order, then metacriticism would be included in the realm of imminent criticism. For example, one might consider Frederick Turner's "The Culture of Hope," "Beauty," and "Natural Classicism" immanent criticism, but essays and collections that deal with specific works, like "Literature and the Economics of Liberty," Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox, eds. as being within the spontaneous order itself (although the introductory essay by Cantor would more properly be considered immanent criticism).

Friday, October 1, 2010

What Should Literary Austrians Be Doing?

What should Literary Austrians (to coin a term) be doing? Doing Misesian analyses of characters' actions? Trying to understand the sociological/spontaneous order origins of storytelling, genre, etc.? Trying to explain, using spontaneous order and entrepreneurial theory, why some works of literature are successful, and why others fail? Finding hints of Austrian-style (and other free market) economic understanding in works of literature? (Others I'm not thinking of at the moment?) Some combination thereof?


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology and the Antimarket Bias

Toban Wiebe has an interesting article that could provide for a bridge between Austrian economics and evolutionary psychology: Evolutionary Psychology and the Antimarket Bias. Such insights might provide for an interesting bridge between Darwinian and Austrian economics approaches to studying literature.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I am hoping that this blog will be a place where people can come together and discuss the use of Austrian economics in the study of literature.

I decided to start this blog because I have seen how some of the economics blogs I follow act as places where people can discuss their ideas and methods, and even post initial thoughts on papers, leading to discussions that lead to more and better ideas. I think that those of us who use Austrian economics in literary studies could benefit from having a place like this where ideas can be developed and discussed. I hope that that is what this will become.