There were a lot of interesting comments on my political art piece, and since I don’t have time to do a new topic today, I thought I would develop the idea a bit further, and also comment on a very recent article that illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of political art. Next Sunday I hope to have something new ready.
First I should clear up a few misconceptions. I am certainly not opposed to political art, nor do I think it is an oxymoron. Rather, I think political art does some things well (critique other value systems) and some things not so well (evaluate competing worldviews.) This is why I don’t believe that liberal artists are able to effectively critique versions of liberalism that differ from their own. There are lots of examples of political art that effectively critique non-liberal value systems, as I mentioned. I did not mention the opposite case, but if my memory is correct then Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange include critiques of utilitarianism. I have only read a bit of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but I suppose it would also fall into this category.
Where political art gets into trouble is when it tries to critique liberalism from within. Thus some utilitarians favor the death penalty, some oppose it. Some favored the war in Kosovo, some opposed it. Some favor capitalism others favor socialism. Unfortunately, most art has limitations that do not allow it to advance the argument very far once the debate focuses on competing worldviews. On the other hand, I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this. Patrick had some very tenacious replies to my post, and in the end got the best of me. I had argued that it would be hard to show the deadweight loss of a tax through art, and after an initial false start (an example that only showed the cost to consumers) he eventually found a passage in Shakespeare that suggested a high tax could cause many people in the clothing industry to lose their job.
I would make a few observations regarding this example. If I am not mistaken, in those days a more liberal-minded person might favor lower taxes, as much of the revenue went to the elite. In addition, a passage in a narrative work of art which describes the effect of a public policy will only be effective if it finds a receptive audience. So perhaps the audience in Shakespeare’s day would find the supply-side argument against high tax rates intuitively plausible. Perhaps they knew of sovereigns who had tried to maximize tax revenue. I think we can assume that modern audiences are different in this regard. Even very smart economists often find supply-side arguments far-fetched. And economists are the group best positioned to understand just how important the incentive effects really are. Art is probably most effective when it shows something new, rather than when it merely tells its listeners what to believe. So although I will concede that Shakespeare said more about excise taxes than I would have imagined, I still think that political art quickly runs into problems when it tries to discriminate among various utilitarian worldviews.
As an example, let me talk a bit more about the Great Leap Forward. In the previous post on art I hypothesized that the free-rider problem explains much of the suffering under that policy. People won’t work as hard or as effectively if they must share the all fruits of their labor with thousands of others. But we see the free-rider problem in real life all the time, as when an apartment shared by four single people isn’t kept clean because everyone wants the other person to do the work. Why couldn’t an artist portray that problem with a little vignette about one lazy bum taking advantage of several other hard-working people? One could, but the audience would not see any connection with a famine that killed millions of people. Even lazy people don’t want to starve to death, and thus would presumably do at least enough work to survive. In small groups it’s almost always possible to get enough agreement so that the group does not perish. If they didn’t the audience wouldn’t see it as a critique of an economic system, but rather would (rightly) see it is a critique of several incredibly stubborn and foolish people. Unfortunately, you can’t scale up the narrative arts to a level where incentive effects cause huge problems, without draining the art out of the narrative. All of Shakespeare’s works are about relatively small groups of people interacting. And there are some things that simply cannot be portrayed in that milieu. Yes, a political argument may be conveyed in the speech of one of the characters, but that will usually mean either preaching to the choir, or having it falling on deaf ears.
Dogville is a recent film by Lars von Trier. (Oddly, this is the third post in which I have mentioned von Trier’s name.) Nicole Kidman plays a character named Grace who wanders into a small town with no resources, and in need of help. The townspeople offer her a job in exchange for food, but as her situation worsens (she is being pursued by the authorities), the townspeople exploit her more and more ruthlessly.
A few days ago Heike Harngart and Steffen Huck published an interesting analysis of the film in the online journal The Economists’ Voice. (The article is entitled “Dogville or an Illustration of Some Properties of General Equilibrium,” and I believe visitors are allowed to access it by filling out a form.) In the first couple of pages they discuss some interesting parallels between the film and various general equilibrium models, such as the Arrow-Debreu economy. In my view, the essay is ruined by the final page, which argues that:
In our view, a (classroom) debate about whether or not what happens between Ben and Grace is pure exchange would be didactically valuable as it mirrors debates about the benefits of global trade where some appear to have more choice than others:
In my view such classroom use of Dogville would be a terrible mistake. Dogville does make some interesting moral arguments, but they are probably not what Harmgart and Huck assume, and also far different from what von Trier may have intended.
I am not certain exactly what political point von Trier attempted to convey (if any), but most of the film’s reviews I recall reading assumed that Dogville was anti-American, anti-free market, or both. Based on various public statements made by von Trier, I find that interpretation plausible. Harmgart and Huck are careful not to make any sweeping claims about the film’s message, merely noting that it raises important issues about market economies–particularly how the initial allocation of assets impacts the final equilibrium. Let me list a few tentative observations, and then try to justify them:
1. The film was intended to be anti-free market.
2. The film is an effective critique of an Arrow-Debreu economy where each person is selfish.
3. The film has nothing of value to say about market economies.
Why don’t the first two observations imply the third? Because market economies have nothing to do with selfishness. People in a market economy may or may not be selfish, just as people in a socialist economy may or may not be selfish.
In practice, no economy could operate with the level of selfishness assumed in many abstract models of market economies. Imagine the worst form of crony capitalism in the world. Now imagine something ten times worse, an economy full of nothing but sociopaths, people so selfish that their own well-being was their only concern. Of course we have to put aside the problem of children as without some altruism it’s not clear to me that children could even survive (and there are children in Dogville.) But let’s be flexible and allow for altruism within the family, but not outside it. So anyone working in a company could not trust any of their co-workers; they would constantly be afraid of being stabbed in the back. Government officials would sell favors to the highest bidder, and thus rent-seeking special interest groups (who could easily out-bid unorganized consumers) would quickly create all sorts of barriers to entry. I’ll let any socialist readers decide whether socialism could be made to work in such a society, but clearly the free market system would collapse. (I recall that Sen made a similar point.)
So the first thing to keep in mind is that the sort of economy described in most economic models would be a nightmarish world that would soon collapse. Then why do we use these models, if they are so unrealistic? As many people have observed, models are useful precisely because things are left out. Any model that perfectly replicated reality, would be reality, and hence would be useless as a model.
When I was a child I had a model battleship. It captured some things well (the color and shape of the ship) and other things not so well (the size; and the materials used in construction.) One would not want to use my toy battleship with a one MM thick plastic hull, to predict the ability of real world battleships to survive direct hits from artillery shells. Similarly, general equilibrium models help us understand certain issues very well, such as the way markets with “self-interested” individuals allocate resources. But they are a horrible way to evaluate the fairness of a free market economy, because they assume people have no sense of fairness. Any society where people lack empathy for others is going to look bad when evaluated under almost any known value system (as all widely accepted value systems assume empathy to be a positive value.)
Here you might ask whether I contradicted myself, arguing a world of “selfish” individuals would be unimaginably awful, and yet praising models based on “self-interest.” But I am merely following in the tradition of the most famous proponent of free markets, Adam Smith, who assumed that people generally do prefer more wealth to less (self-interest), but also have a wide variety of other human emotions (which I believe he called “sympathies.”)
Others might argue that although Smith had a broad view of human nature, many of his followers take a much narrower view, arguing that people are basically selfish. I have met people that make that argument, but it’s hard to take them seriously, as they show moral outrage when people around them behave selfishly toward them. As Shakespeare showed, people are not “basically selfish,” nor are they “basically unselfish,” they are a complex mixture of all sorts of vices and virtues, a mixture that economists will never be able to adequately model.
The Harmgart and Huck piece is an interesting essay that is worth reading. And Dogville is an underrated film that has makes some powerful moral arguments. But Dogville does not have anything useful to say about world trade policy, or free markets. Rather what it shows is just how cruel it is to take advantage of people in desperate circumstances. But don’t multinational corporations do that when they hire desperate workers in third world countries? For my answer I will refer you back to the Paul Krugman quote in last Sunday’s essay (as I trust no leftist would believe a word I have to say on this issue.) If you look closely at Krugman’s essay, you will see that he is implicitly criticizing the sort of policy implications that many would be likely to draw from Dogville, if they used the sort of reasoning Harmgart and Huck seem to recommend. (I have to be careful here because H&H are very careful to say they are merely raising questions about whether some seemingly “free choices” should actually be allowed to be made, they are not taking sides.) But because economics is so counter-intuitive, non-economists would be very likely to get the answers wrong. That’s Krugman’s argument, and I entirely agree.
If I wanted to take a political message from Dogville, it would revolve around selfishness, not markets. It exhorts us to have more sympathy for those whose “initial allocation” is much lower than ours. Perhaps we should do more to help the world’s poor, or the poor in America. But that question has little to do with free markets. As I argued in an earlier post, Denmark is arguably the most free market economy in the world, where companies are free to fire workers if they chose to (unlike most of Europe.) But if von Trier’s home country was his intended target, it certainly went right over the heads of even the most sophisticated film critics.
[There is also the problem of how to help the poor. It is not hard to envision how people could be charitable if Nicole Kidman stumbled into their town with just the clothes on her back. It's not quite so easy to figure out how to help 100 million very poor peasants in Bangladesh.]
I am reluctant to recommend films because I have offbeat taste. Most viewers would not like this film, and I seem to recall that even high-brow critics panned it, despite it pretentious artistic style. And yet even though my political views are very different from those of Mr. von Trier, I liked the film a lot. He is one of the most talented filmmakers in the world. Like Stanley Kubrick he often makes the audience squirm, but it is hard to deny his stylistic brilliance. But please do not see this movie on my recommendation, and then complain. As with David Lynch films; I tell people that if they would like it they would probably have already seen it.
One final point, could it be argued that free market economies make people more selfish? Perhaps, but Dogville doesn’t make that argument. On the other hand the classical economists, and more recently Deirdre McCloskey, argue the reverse.