Is the term ‘political art’ an oxymoron? (Part 2)

[I call this “part 2,” because if you plan on reading the previous post, do that one first.]

I’ve always had a cynical attitude toward overtly political themes in art.  Some of this comes from reading movie reviews, which often provide preposterous political interpretations.  Thus New York magazine says last year’s Wall-E, a film about a society where a government-run corporation controls 100% of the economy, is a critique of “free markets.”   Films about the Three Gorges Dam (which epitomizes Maoist economics) are critiques of capitalism.  I know this is like shooting ducks in a barrel, but coverage of political art isn’t really any better at more highbrow publications, such as the New York Review of Books.

Apparently film critics feel that any portrayal of social injustice; is ipso facto a critique of capitalism.  In frustration, Deirdre McCloskey once exclaimed:

“I don’t care how one defines capitalism, as long as it’s not defined as evil incarnate.”

Unfortunately, for many intellectuals in the humanities that is precisely its definition.

One problem is that the narrative arts tend to portray actual events, not institutional abstractions like ownership.  A privately-owned factory where workers slave away at low wages in poor working conditions looks pretty much like a government-owned factory where workers slave away at low wages in poor working conditions.  China has plenty of both, and when I see Chinese films I rarely know which type is being portrayed.

Because institutional arrangements are often hard to discern in works of art, many intellectuals are oblivious to the most important worldwide trend in recent decades, neoliberal economic reforms.  In a recent NYT article Stanley Fish mentioned that most of his colleagues in academia weren’t even familiar with the term ‘neoliberalism.’  Fish had some inkling of what neoliberalism means, but I don’t think even he really understands the concept.  For instance, he linked neoliberalism to right wing regimes like Reagan and Thatcher, even though neoliberal reforms have been, if anything, even more dramatic in countries with left-leaning governments (both communist and non-communist.)  He also tried to explain neoliberalism by describing the Coase Theorem, and got that wrong as well.

BTW: There is nothing shameful about being weak in economics.  I know very little about biochemistry, opera, tort law and mechanical engineering.  But ignorance of economics does create some problems for political art, or at least some forms of political art.

Because the neoliberal revolution has been a profoundly liberal revolution, and because the arts provide no way of understanding the motives of neoliberals, intellectuals as a class are simply oblivious to the underlying forces changing the world economy since 1980.  Of course they know about the downfall of communism, and may even know something about market reforms in western countries, but there is no context, no sense of why these changes are occurring.  One often reads interviews of artists from the 1960s generation who speak wistfully of youthful ideals, and then contrast those ideals with the sad reality of the modern world.  Later I’ll argue that they were much more successful than they imagine.

Let’s take a more serious look at this issue by examining the Chinese economic policy called the Great Leap Forward.  Although I know more about China than the average person (having traveled there many times), I know little about this episode, which is itself very revealing.  I recall reading that Mao herded the peasants onto communes during the late 1950s, and agricultural output plummeted (presumably because when one’s output is shared by thousands, there is less incentive to produce.)  I also recall reading something about pots and pans melted down for backyard steel mills, although I imagine that anecdote represents an attempt by non-economists to make sense out of what might well have been the worst thing that ever happened, not just in China, but anywhere.  (As many as 30 million people starved to death, which is just about the most agonizing way a person can die.)   So let’s look at some well known artistic treatments of this great tragedy, or policy blunder, or crime:

. . . .

Well, that didn’t take long.  It certainly doesn’t loom very large in the Western imagination, and more surprisingly, I don’t see any evidence that it is major theme of Chinese art.  I’ve seen lots of Chinese films, but To Live is the only one I recall that touched on this tragedy.  Interesting, I have no clear memory of how the film portrayed this event, whereas its portrayal of the (much less traumatic) Cultural Revolution is forever seared into my mind.

Consider the old Marxist maxim “From each according to their ability.  To each according to their needs.”  Taken literally, that means a society where workers have zero monetary incentive to increase production at the margin.  (I guess the hope was that socialism would produce a “new man.”)  At a superficial level, the GLF seemed to be an attempt to implement the “To each according to their needs.”  I think this is precisely the problem, how can art critique a policy that is based on a virtue (sharing is good) that we all teach our children?  On the other hand, the Cultural Revolution is an easy target, as it violated the “From each according to their ability.”  In To Live, Zhang Yimou shows a hospital where the experienced doctors have been ejected, and unqualified medical students are unable to cope with the cases before them.  The Cultural Revolution is an easy target for artists.

[BTW: In 1979, 20 years after the Great Leap Forward, a Chinese policymaker named Zhao Ziyang instituted a new (and more market-oriented) policy regime in China’s rural areas.  This time there actually was a “backyard” industrial revolution in China’s countryside, as farmers rushed to set up factories.  But there was no mass starvation, as food production also soared.  The Chinese government rewarded Zhao for his reformist zeal by imprisoning him in 1989.  No good deed goes unpunished.  And this wasn’t just an ordinary good deed, but one that (in pure utilitarian terms) might be the best thing that has ever happened—anywhere.  In just a few years, hundreds of millions were lifted above abject poverty and hunger.  Zhao died in 2005, still under house arrest.  Mao’s picture still graces Tiananmen Square.]

Another interesting example is the classic Ukrainian silent film Earth (1930), which depicts Kulak peasants as villains.  I have read a number of rave reviews, none of which cited the sinister undertones of the anti-Kulak portrayals.  The film came out just before the brutal Soviet policy aimed at exterminating this group.  Instead, critics focus on the positive images of community and solidarity.  (Contrast this with the reviews of classic films with obviously non-liberal messages, such as Birth of a Nation.)

Here is my thesis; it is almost impossible for the arts to critique either socialism or capitalism from within liberalism.  That is, art cannot show how one of these ideologies can or cannot work in terms of liberal values (which are roughly utilitarian (or if you wish, egalitarian/utilitarian.)  Artists have tried to show that capitalism is inconsistent with liberal values, but have always failed.  In the case of socialism, it is hard to find any artistic critiques at all.  (I haven’t read Ayn Rand’s novels—does she argue socialism fails to deliver the goods, or that it is inconsistent with the human drive to excel?)

Great art is generally about particular situations, not broad generalities.  But the economic principles that apply to large complex systems are totally different from the principles we use in our daily lives.  Hayek observed that:

“If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.  Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.  So we must learn to live in two worlds at once.”

The arts can portray only one of those worlds.

Some might argue that there have been effective artistic critiques of socialism.  Right wingers (correctly) note that Animal Farm and 1984, are (at least to some extent) aimed at the Soviet Union.  But only Animal Farm has much to say about economics, and what is does say is profoundly misguided.  I haven’t read the book since high school, but as I recall it portrays the ruling pigs as hypocrites, preaching equality but living high off the hog while other animals suffered.  (Let me know if my memory failed me.)  So Orwell was criticizing the farm’s leaders for not being socialist enough, not living up to their ideals.  This should be no surprise as Orwell was a socialist.

When I think about how right-wingers revere Orwell’s critiques of the Soviet Union, I like to imagine what would happen if it was discovered that Mao had read a copy of Animal Farm in 1958, and if it had provided inspiration for the GLF.  “Yes, we are a bunch of hypocrites; we need to instill real socialism in China.” And when I think about the GLF, I think about how some left-wingers complain that real socialism has never been tried, that the Soviet Union never lived up to the phrase “To each according to their needs.”  That may be true, but the Chinese GLF came pretty close.

One subject that I would like to research in the future is the political attitudes of artists who suffered under communism.  Rorty criticized Nabokov for rejecting political art as a sort of oxymoron.  Nabokov adopted a sort of “art for art’s sake” aestheticism.  At the other extreme, Solzhenitsyn responded to communism by reverting back to a nationalistic conservatism.  In between is Vaclav Havel, who became a pragmatic neoliberal.  And then there’s the former Pope.  All very different political views, but none share the sort of starry-eyed admiration of socialist figures like Castro and Che that one often sees in western artists.

I’d be interested if anyone knows of a systematic study of the political views of writers from the Soviet bloc.  If Rorty is correct that literature tends to make one more liberal, and if Orwell is correct that socialism is the common sense ideology of any good-hearted liberal, then where does that leave writers who suffered under “real existing socialism?”  (Especially if they are unaware of the economistic worldview.)

Because I am a right wing liberal, I suppose one could argue that I cannot offer a dispassionate critique of political art.  After all, most political art leans to the left, so naturally I don’t like the message.  But that’s not really my objection to political art.  I don’t object to political art that rejects right wing liberalism, rather I claim political art doesn’t know that right wing liberalism exists.  Outside of economics, intellectual liberalism is completely dominated by the left.  So just as Canadians know much more about the U.S. than Americans know about Canada, right wing liberals know much more about left wing liberalism, than vice versa.

Consider Paul Krugman, an economist with impeccable progressive credentials, but someone who occasionally takes a right wing position.  He ended an essay defending sweatshops with the following admonition to his critics:

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty.

I have spoken with numerous left wing intellectuals over the years, and read countless others, and I am afraid that Krugman is basically right.  The problem isn’t that they reject Krugman’s argument, but that they don’t understand it.  Or to be more specific, then don’t understand the essence of the argument.  One part they do get—the fact that sweatshop jobs might be better than the alternative.  (Or I should say some of them get it, others still romanticize peasant life.)  But even so, they ask, why shouldn’t these rich multinational corporations be required to pay decent wages?  The answer is related to the earlier observation (in part 1) that elasticities are much larger than common sense would suggest, in other words, the answer is so hopelessly counter-intuitive that it is almost impossible to convince someone without a deep understanding of economics.

OK, so suppose I am right that economics and art don’t mix, there are lots of other political issues, and surely art can address those issues.  Yes and no.  I am not even arguing that economic issues are off limits, only that art cannot effectively critique liberal economic policies, whether right wing or left wing, if they are motivated by utilitarian values.  And the same applies for any other political topic.  There are lots of good artistic critiques of the death penalty, but none that address the liberal argument in favor of the death penalty, i.e. the argument by figures such as Becker and Posner.  Why do I call Becker’s argument liberal?  Because his work on crime places value on the welfare of the criminal, and thus is utilitarian (as opposed to conservative arguments focused on criminals getting their “just deserts.”)

What about anti-war art, surely that qualifies?  Again, not if critiquing a liberal stance on foreign policy.  Artists can take either the pacifist or liberal internationalist position on the war in Kosovo (depending on whose suffering they chose to portray), but in neither case does the artist address the political views of the other side.  Both sides want to minimize human suffering, so there is nothing to “show” that would advance the argument.  In contrast, it is easy for an artist to critique a non-liberal position, such as a nationalist ideology that says certain people don’t count.

Don’t misunderstand my argument; I don’t doubt that artists can try to critique a liberal position from within.  They might even succeed in persuading a gullible audience.  But it is simply an empty exercise in propaganda, which isn’t taken at all seriously in the relevant field of inquiry (economics, criminology, foreign policy, etc.)

Why can’t art present complex political ideas?  I suppose one could put on one of those marathon stage productions, and have the actors read long portions of dense scholarly treatises.  But the art would drain out of the production ever bit as fast as the didactic lectures were added.  The point of art is to show, not tell.  I imagine that this was Nabakov’s objection to political art—it is either bad politics or bad art.  For slightly different reasons, I share Nabokov’s contempt for most of what passes as political art.

And yet . . .

If I take off my right wing hat and put on my liberal hat, everything seems magically transformed.  Now political art seems not just important, but the most important driver of political change.  Artists become Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  To see why, let’s take a closer look at Rorty’s argument that liberal attitudes come not from philosophical treatises, or social science research, but from the narrative arts.

Rorty sees liberals as people who believe “cruelty is the worst thing that we do.”  He argues that the narrative arts put us inside the mind of “the other” and show that they suffer like we do.  This builds empathy, which is a core component of liberalism.  (Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Road to Wigan Pier, or Brokeback Mountain.)  I know that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but if you look at the huge generational difference in attitudes towards issues like interracial marriage and gay rights, it’s not hard to imagine that the narrative arts might have played an important role.  There has been an enormous change in how these issues are portrayed in TV and film, for instance.

Some might argue that the narrative arts are also full of conservative themes (law and order dramas, patriotic war films, etc.)  Yes, but although conservatism will always be with us, think about how it has been transformed by the liberal revolution in cultural attitudes.  Contrast Eastwood’s two recent films about Iwa Jima, for instance, with the sort of film he made when he was younger.

In my earlier post on Denmark I argued that free market reforms were very closely correlated with liberal (or idealistic) cultural attitudes.  In my view the causality mostly goes from cultural attitudes to economic reform, although in the long run there is also reverse causality.

One could argue that one subtext of much narrative art is that the Nordic sort of liberal culture is close to ideal.  Think about the difference between conservative and liberal attitudes toward marriage, for instance.  In the Nordic countries a very high percentage of children are raised by unwed mothers.  The difference between them and us is that the father is also usually living with the mother, and helping to raise the child.  Now think about what matters in the narrative arts, the form (a marriage certificate?)   Or the substance (human interaction?)

If I am right about the connection between liberal attitudes and neoliberalism, then this sheds a whole new light on the laments of aging 60s artists and intellectuals.  Maybe they did win in the end.  The liberal social change is obvious for anyone who opens their eyes, but one could argue that the neoliberal economic reforms also mesh with their values, they just don’t know it.  (I believe that Reason magazine makes this argument.)  The world is much less bigoted, much less violent, and much less politically repressive than in the 1960s.  And a much smaller proportion of the world’s population lives in abject poverty.  What’s not to like about the direction of change?

Rorty argued that philosophers and artists should stick to what they do best, and leave the practical problems of implementing the liberal vision to social scientists.  I realize that this sort of advice might seem a bit rich coming from an economist in 2009.  Particularly given the, how shall I put it, “recent events.”  But as Adam Smith observed “there’s a lot of ruin in a nation.”  If you don’t like what the “science” of neoliberal economics has done to America, check out a country lacking input from neoliberal economists (such as North Korea.)  Or to make the point from the opposite perspective:

“When you say ‘hill'” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley” (Lewis Carroll, 1872.)

To summarize, if I think of politics as the art of combining values and worldviews, then the concept of political art seems an oxymoron.  On the other hand if one simply focuses on values, then political art is not only possible, it may well be essential to a good society.  Yes, I know that there is actually no sharp line between values and worldviews—after all values represent a sort of worldview.  If you insist on definitions, consider my use of the term ‘worldview’ to represent ideas that cannot be conveyed through art.  (That makes my argument pretty hard to refute!)

Update (3/30/09);  The following was published exactly one week after my post in the London Times.  Here is the key quotation from T.S. Eliot:

Eliot wrote: “After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”

My point exactly.



39 Responses to “Is the term ‘political art’ an oxymoron? (Part 2)”

  1. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    22. March 2009 at 18:08

    There’s an interesting critique of Orwell’s political writing here, from a right-wing or libertarian perspective. I had previously only been familiar with stuff like 1984, Animal Farm, Politics & The English Language and so on.

  2. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    22. March 2009 at 19:48

    (I haven’t read Ayn Rand’s novels””does she argue socialism fails to deliver the goods, or that it is inconsistent with the human drive to excel?)

    Both. In Atlas Shrugged we see the supply of a new alloy “Reardon Metal” fall under government control. Rather than allow price mechanism to allocate the limited supply, the government assigns rations according to political process which is portrayed as corrupt and inefficient. She also portrays a factory which has adopted “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. The narrative goes over the disputes and discontent that rise among the workers in ascertaining each other’s need. Meanwhile production plunges because no one has a reason to work harder.

    This is distinct from Rand’s conception of morality. Wherein as you say, socialism is a corruption of the soul she likens to slavery. “I will neither sacrifice myself to others, nor will I allow others to be sacrificed to me.”

    The Fountain Head has a different tone; its less of an ideological vehicle and pronounces more on staying true to oneself. e.g., the book is very vivid in the vapidness of design-by-committee and lack of individualism.

  3. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    22. March 2009 at 20:00

    “So Orwell was criticizing the farm’s leaders for not being socialist enough, not living up to their ideals. This should be no surprise as Orwell was a socialist.”

    Orwell was a Trotskyist. More than anything else Animal Farm is a critique of Stalinism. Snowball, the ideological pure-pig (who is eventually expelled) is Trotsky. Napoleon, the tyrant-pig, is modeled from Stalin, and Squealer is Vyacheslav Molotov. Once you know about Orwell’s association with Trotsky in Spain, its hard to see that story as having any more depth than an allegorical critique of Trotsky’s persecution.

    So yeah, the point of Animal Farm is to repudiate Stalinism as an impure corruption of socialism. … all the other farm animals work hard!

  4. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    22. March 2009 at 21:20

    ‘Why can’t art present complex political ideas?’

    It can, it’s just hard. Shakespeare did it very well. He shows politicians for what they are, venal schemers.

    For some people, that’s an unpalatable idea. I can immediately think of several movies that expose the reality of Communism; ‘The Inner Circle’, ‘White Nights’, and ‘The Lives of Others’ all understand the incentive structure that people who had to live in Communist countries faced: ‘Modern man is so confused, Raymond. Finally, it’s better to work in a theatre than in a mine.’

    On a lighter note, the Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell film, ‘His Girl Friday’ gets state and local politics down pat.

    What’s difficult is to find art that truthfully portrays (American) liberal political ideas accurately.

  5. Gravatar of Paul Paul
    23. March 2009 at 09:28

    We connect with art trough emotions. Certain emotions are very easy to convey. One of the easiest is suffering. We are deeply concerned with the suffering of others. Of course there are always people who cause the suffering. They are evil, we despise them.

    Showing (classical) liberal ideas and capitalism through emotions is difficult. Elation, pride, accomplishment, success….it is very hard to convey these emotions. I guess we are not able to feel it trough art. But the downside are people who are not successful. They suffer. In an economic sense they are still better of than in an agrarian or socialist society. But the suffering is real and so easy to show in art.
    I think this also reinforces the zero-sum concept many people have. For every winner there are loosers. I guess many artists just show this kind of suffering because it is easy and raises their chances for success. And because they are also more concerned with people who suffer than people who are successful.

    Maybe its the argument Milton Friedman made. Our astonishing wealth makes us see the remaining problems even more pressing.

  6. Gravatar of Como Encontrar Pareja si Estas Solo o Sola Como Encontrar Pareja si Estas Solo o Sola
    23. March 2009 at 10:05

    […] TheMoneyIllusion » Is the term ‘political art’ an oxymoron? (Part 2) […]

  7. Gravatar of Goodloe Goodloe
    23. March 2009 at 11:14

    It seems to me that you don’t think something can be good art if it doesn’t speak directly to the final arbiter of politics, which for you would be efficient market hypothesis. But of course not many artists are going to agree with you that that is a final space. The Brothers Karamazov and Demons both rebut the idea of Shigalyovism, which is a kind of slavery based on the Pareto principal. EMH is also an aesthetic theory in terms of its primordial appeal, as an example you won’t see a pro EMH novel that tries to portray the ultimate horizon of an efficient market, because such an artist would reserve that space as an unfathomable value. This is in the same way as you won’t see a socialist novel that tries to directly portray an ultimate socialist society that is not being acted upon or resisting a corrupting force. Instead you will get the case for either from its status as a critical impulse, as you would in ‘Essay on Lucidity’ or ‘The Jungle’ or Ayn Rand novels. There is also no reason that the political content of a piece of art even has to be overt first and foremost. for example the film ‘Bee movie’ at its eye level seems to be a worker friendly film, but then from overhead it is more of an essay for Austrian school economics (Markets integrated into nature, legal redistribution causing catastrophic environmental changes and all that).
    ‘Wall-E’ has nothing to do with a government run corporation, it’s about a corporation run government. And of course if someone were to call it a critique of ‘free-markets’ its obvious what they mean, infinite consumption, pollution, humanity unleashed. Luxury intergalactic cruise while a little robot cleans up the environment is easily recognizable as some of the post-katrina companies who marketed luxury evacuation plans to the bahamas and so forth if your house was burned or flooded. Like it or not, these features are being integrated into the concept of free market because of the reluctance of pro-neoliberals to explicitly define their values. Conservative criticisms of bureaucracy have also joined into the aesthetic portrayal of government, but is there any tangible difference between the draining bureaucratic experiences of the DMV versus say Comcast customer service department?

  8. Gravatar of tuelay tuelay
    23. March 2009 at 12:56

    it is such a difficult job to do to produce a “tastefull” and “political correckt” art. and if here “political correckt” means more social responsibilities, it makes it evenmore difficult cause it is somehow against the nature of free thinking and ego. i does not mean that one produce art just with her/his ego but after sometime there is unfortunatelly a very thin line between good-free-clever-avangard art and ego. but i still have hope for political art, cause i got now lower expactations. even a social cityplanning is political art. in some countries they distory the meeting areas for huge amount of people so that big groups cannot demostrate anymore. or you see really disgusting advertisements which are shaping our perception, or the perception of the children (which is more dangerious). so, every little clever change in life is for me political correckt art.

  9. Gravatar of tuelay tuelay
    23. March 2009 at 13:25

    Hallo the money ill. above is my commend but i changed it a bit, i would like you to put this one instead if you do put my commend on your blogg.
    regards, tuley

    I find your article really very clever. I also find it very dangerous that the art today have no respeckt or any connection to science. Worring and knowing about politics and econoy is allready forgotten, but the basic sciences are also out. I hear hardy any commend about chemical scientists who work on the wanderful new painting materials or the great mathematicians who are shaping the great graphic programs. I see those people who produce the tools as the workers class of the art today.

    about politicak art: It is such a difficult job to produce a “tastefull” and “political correckt” art. And if here “political correckt” means more social responsibilities, it makes it evenmore difficult cause it is somehow against the nature of free thinking and ego. It does not mean that one produce art just with her/his ego but after sometime there is unfortunatelly a very thin line between good-free-clever-avangard art and ego. But i still have hope for political art, cause I got now lower expectations. Even a social cityplanning is political art. In some countries they distory the meeting areas for huge amount of people so that big groups cannot demostrate anymore. Or you see really disgusting advertisements (without ethik) which are shaping our perception, or the perception of the children (which is more dangerious). So, every little clever change in life is for me political correckt art.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. March 2009 at 16:07

    TGGP, Thanks, It looks very interesting. I hope readers understand that this isn’t a scholarly work, but rather an off the top of my head piece. I would reread Animal Farm before trying anything more serious.

    Jon, Thanks. I had a general idea that Rand was not liberal, in the utilitarian way I define the term. I had the impression that she was what I call a dogmatic libertarian (although I gather she didn’t like that term) meaning someone who thought forced redistribution of income was unfair. I contrast that with libertarians like Friedman and Hayek, who tend to favor the free market for pragmatic reasons. Not having read her novels I can’t comment, but my impression of art that tries to get into economic analysis is that it is hard to be artistic and didactic at the same time, although perhaps you can alternate to some extent. I think it’s fair to say that she is one of the few well known novelists who does anti-socialist art. I do think there are some other important anti-liberal novels, however, which I may talk about in another post.

    Jon#2, I agree about the anti-Stalinist angle. I said it was anti-Soviet, which at the time he wrote the book basically meant anti-Stalinist, as he had been in power for so long.

    Patrick, I should have said something like “complex political structures”. Shakespeare could certainly portray complex personal characters/motives/interrelationships. But I don’t think his work addresses the welfare cost of an excise tax. That may sound sarcastic, but its not. The horrors of the Great Leap Forward were not obvious when the plan was implemented, but rather represented a failure to understand technical details about elasticities. I don’t know if anyone noticed this, but the hidden purpose of my essay was to shove the Great Leap Forward into the world’s face, and ask people why they’ve never given much thought to what it means. I think the answer helps us understand what’s wrong with art that tries to address technical economic issues, like whether land should be owned individually or collectively. You don’t need to tell artists that the shameful treatment of blacks, Native Americans, and Europeans Jews is an issue that needs to be addressed. And they know how to address it. The fact that no one seems to know what to make of the Great Leap Forward (which was as tragic as those other atrocities) speaks volumes. I probably should have made that point more explicit.

    Paul, I agree with your points, but would add that the only valid argument for capitalism is that it can reduce suffering. One cannot argue for it on the basis that it produces benefits despite the suffering it imposes on the poor. And I think Friedman agreed on that point.

    Goodloe, You get off to a bad start claiming I favor art that supports the EMH. I don’t think you know what the EMH is (it is not a free market ideology), but whatever the definition, I don’t think art should advocate that ideology.

    I agree that “Wall-E has nothing to do with a government run corporation” Indeed, that was one of my main points–art cannot show ownership structures. Later you talk about the conservative criticism of public bureaucracies, which might be no worse than private. Again, I agree, art show bureaucracies, the question of whether one is entangled in a Kafkaesque private or public bureaucracy is incidental to the art. By the way, I don’t view Comcast as a free market, but as a government protected monopoly. I would much rather deal with a government owned company that is competing without subsidy or protection (like Singapore Air), than a protected private company (Comcast). That’s what I mean by “free market”. Many on the left seem to think an economist who is pro-free market is somehow pro-business. Not true. Business almost never favors a free market in their own industry. Economists favor free markets because they don’t trust business.

    I haven’t yet read the novels you mention, but I can’t wait to find out how one could have “slavery based on the Pareto principle”.

    Your view that free markets lead to pollution must be proved not assumed. I presume you know that the pollution record of the former communist countries was much worse than capitalist countries. So if the producers of Wall-E thought viewers were going to simply assume that the pollution was the result of free markets, they were likely to be disappointed. Pollution results from polluters not having to pay the external costs of their actions. It has nothing to do with free markets.

    tuelay, Not quite sure what your main point is, but I would just reiterate that my essay was not anti-political art, the last few paragraphs were very strongly pro-political art.

  11. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    23. March 2009 at 17:08

    “Not having read her novels I can’t comment, but my impression of art that tries to get into economic analysis is that it is hard to be artistic and didactic at the same time, although perhaps you can alternate to some extent.”

    Atlas Shrugged proves your point. The novel degrades into a long-winded speech near the end–roughly sixty pages of dense print wherein the lead character expounds on Randian moral philosophy. To call that moment in the book art… is certainly stretching the term.

  12. Gravatar of j. christian j. christian
    24. March 2009 at 00:21

    Thank you for a very interesting meditation on political art. Although I’ve just discovered your blog, and you describe yourself as a right wing liberal, I’d say you have pretty good progressive credentials with statements such as the following:

    The world is much less bigoted, much less violent, and much less politically repressive than in the 1960s. And a much smaller proportion of the world’s population lives in abject poverty. What’s not to like about the direction of change?

    It seems you believe we are approaching some kind of ideal, whether it is from the right or left (or both) of neoliberalism, it doesn’t matter much. I don’t entirely agree with that view, but then I’m likely to be dismissed as one of those conservatives who will “always be with us.” (Wasn’t it the poor who were supposed to do that?)

    I think Rorty is right that the narrative is where much of the heavy lifting of shaping political sensibilities takes place. I also think you’re right that empathy is a core component of liberalism. But that’s exactly where its utility is breaking down. The staunching of cruelty and suffering is obviously of paramount importance, but can’t political art overplay that hand?

    Interesting that you mention Orwell. Here’s a quotation of his that I like:

    [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with tin soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

    I hesitate to cite this passage because invariably someone will assume that it is sympathetic toward Hitler, but it’s a useful critique of our times. There is no significant critique of left or right liberalism today precisely because the artistic mind, conformed as it is to the narrative power of cruelty and suffering, cannot think of anything else to say. An economist might even say something is monopolizing the artistic mind leading, to underproduction of something else.

    That “something else” might require a broader moral imagination. I think of James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense, which doesn’t diminish the moral impulse toward sympathy that has evolved in all of us, but stresses that there are other dimensions to morality as well, such as duty and self-control. These are hardly fashionable in political art, to say the least, yet there’s a case to be made for them. I also think of Alasdair MacIntyre and his thesis that the entire language of moral philosophy is dead. Something just rings hollow when the best we can do is say “do no harm.” It’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition for our political art to transform us.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. March 2009 at 05:05

    Jon, I am really glad to hear your views on Atlas Shrugged, as it will save me the time of reading the book. (BTW, this is nothing against Rand, I just meant saving me the time of finding out if it had parts that were very didactic, or if the ideas flowed exclusively out of the narrative.)

    J. Christian, Extremely thoughtful response. I actually agree with what you are trying to say. I have doubts about utilitarianism, despite my general view that it is usually the best value system by which to evaluate public policies. I think it does somehow diminish the dignity of humans, by turning them into children, or machines.

    It seems like the idea that liberalism can turn people into children is one theme of Brave New World. Is that right? And also perhaps the writings of Nietzsche. The idea that liberalism can turn people into machines, is a theme of A Clockwork Orange. I was thinking of discussing those two works in a later post. Any thoughts on my perception?

    You might like Deirdre McCloskey’s book The Bourgeois Virtues, which is very critical of utilitarianism, and instead argues for 7 virtues. I think Orwell would have liked the book.

  14. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. March 2009 at 06:34

    ‘Shakespeare could certainly portray complex personal characters/motives/interrelationships. But I don’t think his work addresses the welfare cost of an excise tax.’

    Jack Cade, Henry VI, part II:


    ‘Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in
    common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,””’



    ‘I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.’

    That’s a man who understands politics.

    Not to mention that he got the Law of Demand right in The Merchant of Venice–when Shylok’s daughter announces she’s converting to Christianity, another character exclaims that the price of pork will be rising–almost three centuries before Adam Smith.

  15. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. March 2009 at 07:08

    Okay, I’ve now read the comments in Part 1, and see the reference to Sowell’s essay on hated middlemen, and Scott’s:

    ‘I forgot to mention that your middleman example was very appropriate. The fact that this group has often been despised throughout history, speaks volumes about cultural attitudes.’

    Guess what the plot of The Merchant of Venice revolves around.

  16. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. March 2009 at 07:19

    Shakespeare, economics, politics…someone should write a book:

  17. Gravatar of Randy Randy
    24. March 2009 at 10:55

    Scott, since I have been responding on investing topics in the other sections I will make a quick comment here as well. I sit on the board of both an art school and an art museum (separate institutions) and as a result know a fair number of artists. I believe that the bulk of art is not political, even when some reviewers embed it with political meanings in their reviews. Or maybe I should say not intended to be political as a primary motive. And, since Wall-E is used as an example I would argue that it is not very political at all. At its core its a love story between EVA and Wall-E and ultimately the happy ending is caused by their relationship with each other being more important than other behavioral norms they have responded to. And, when the Captain chooses to fight the “machine” it is a pure celebration of the human spirit that realizes the life they have been living is inauthentic. Love and its transcendence and human authenticity are primary drivers of art and I see Wall-E as in that same tradition. As Spiderman says, all great stories are about a girl.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. March 2009 at 11:24

    Randy, Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed Wall-E as a non-political movie. I do think there is a fair amount of art that has some political intent, although as my essay indicated, it all depends on how you define “political.” If by political one means values, then almost all narrative arts are at least a bit political. I’m fine with that. In particular, I think art often does a good job of criticizing non-liberal values. If you define political as both values and worldviews, then I think art really struggles to say anything interesting. BTW, I think one could see Wall-E as an attack on utilitarianism, the view that only happiness matters.

    Patrick, Those are nice quotations, but they actually support my point. Certainly none address the welfare cost of an excise tax. At most, you could argue that they deal with the gross cost of excise taxes to consumers, and even that is stretch. But let’s say Shakespeare was addressing excise taxes–lower taxes would be a very liberal position to take in his day. This is my point, art tends to support liberal values. I say that because in Shakespeare’s day the system was closer to feudalism. So a liberal-minded person might favor lower taxes so that peasants could live better. Under feudalism the aristocrats and king were considered better, or more valuable, than mere peasants. I assume that Shakespeare must have been at least a bit liberal for his era (from the play you mention about middlemen there is “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”) I think many readers thought my essay was opposed to political art, or that I thought political art was an oxymoron. Not so. Probably this is my own fault as the essay meandered around aimlessly.
    Yes, demand slopes downward. But I consider that common sense. My point was more that art could not portray (counterintuitive) economistic thinking–such as the fact that an excise tax produces a deadweight loss that nobody gains. And that these counterintuitive, abstract, deadweight losses can add up to 30 million dead.

  19. Gravatar of j. christian j. christian
    24. March 2009 at 12:02

    And that these counterintuitive, abstract, deadweight losses can add up to 30 million dead.

    Very true. It works much the same way in the gains from trade. Everyone can see the toaster factory worker who loses his job to overseas production. It’s much harder to visualize the welfare gains from buying cheaper imported toasters, although those gains do add up across the population.

  20. Gravatar of Charles Charles
    24. March 2009 at 14:34

    In your post, Scott, you variously associate “liberalism” with:

    – utilitarianism
    – egalitarianism
    – pacifism
    – socialism
    – collectivism
    – economic illiteracy
    – cruelty aversion (per Judith Shklar via Rorty)
    – opposition to the death penalty

    and others I have no doubt overlooked. This is more confirmation of my position that the term no longer is useful, assuming it was at any time after perhaps mid 20th C. Although we don’t use the term, if pressed I – and I think my close friends – would answer to being “liberals”, but I suspect that to the extent each of us offered an opinion on specific issues, there would be little unanimity other than an aversion to cruelty. (I should note the possibility of age bias here – we are are all much older than the typical blog reader, and therefore also much mellower.)

    I think the specific positions you critique (eg, not understanding Krugman’s “sweat shop” position) have in common not that they fall under some collective descriptor but that they are based on ignorance – a fault that I am certain you don’t think is peculiar to “the left” (whatever that means). It seems to be human nature to take a position on the hot topics of the day, and that inevitably means most positions will be uninformed due to the time, effort, and mental horsepower required to have even superficial understanding of today’s complex issues. As another commenter observed, concepts that may seem simple to a specialist (eg, comparative advantage, demand elasticity) will be hopelessly obscure to a lay person. My personal solution to this dilemma is to try (not necessarily successfully) to offer no opinions on issues on which I haven’t made the requisite investment.

    This may help explain your observation about art and “liberal” values. The social issues artists address presumably typically will not be about economics or political theory per se, but about the suffering consequent to failures of the existing social systems; ie, they will be motivated by cruelty aversion that in “liberalism” often manifests itself in empathy with society’s “losers”. Of course, to the extent that the artists take the next step and express a view on the preferred corrective measures, they may again be offering ignorant opinions. But I submit that in doing so, they are merely being human rather than “liberal”.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. March 2009 at 16:07

    J Christian, I agree.

    Charles, Good post. The problem with blogs is that one can lay out only a small piece of one’s argument at a time. Maybe I will do a post on liberalism, but for now let me repeat that I see liberalism as a value system, not an ideology. Classical liberals, socialist liberals and neoliberals all have similar values, in my view, but different worldviews (and hence different ideologies.) So here is how I would simplify your list:

    Utilitarianism is the value system, everything else is an implication (depending on one’s worldview.) Take egalitarianism. Because utilitarians want to maximize total utility, an extra util to a Bangladeshi peasant is just as valuable as an extra util to a king. That’s pretty egalitarian. In addition, many liberals (not all) have the worldview that governments can effectively redistribute wealth. Since it is widely believed that an extra hundred dollars means more utils to a pauper than a prince, most liberals have tended to be egalitarian in their public policy preferences. Even Friedman and Hayek favored income supports for the poor. Let’s take some non-liberal ideologies, to contrast with my seemingly unrelated list of liberal ideologies:

    Conservatism (valuing tradition over utility, or “just deserts” in punishment)
    Religious fundamentalism
    Radical egalitarianism (pushed so far total utility falls, as with Mao, Pol Pot, etc,)
    Nationalism (and some kinds of patriotism)
    Radical environmentalism
    Racism/sexism/intolerance toward gays

    And I am sure there are many more. So I didn’t mean to suggest that all ideologies were liberal. Only those who aim to maximize the sum total of human happiness.

    I focused on the left for several reasons. Most artists are on the left. And most people on the right are not liberal. Since the essay was only concerned with art and liberalism, there was no point in talking about all the foolish views of those on the right (and there are many.) Of course there are a few right wing liberals like myself, but why would I be expected to criticize my own views?

    You’re probably right that we should stop using the term ‘liberal’ (it certainly is no longer linked to “liberty”), but first let’s stop using ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’, which are even more meaningless. I suggest the latter two terms be replaced by two different concepts: statism/free market and egalitarian/inegalitarian.

  22. Gravatar of Charles Charles
    24. March 2009 at 19:18

    Scott –

    The problem I have with labels when used in general conversation (as opposed to specialized conversation in a context where everyone has at least somewhat consistent ideas as to meanings) is that they too often function as tribal epithets rather than as useful shorthand for defined ideologies and are consequently frequently misused, either by design or due to ignorance. This, of course, applies in spades to the ones you emphasize: socialism and capitalism, to which I think McCloskey’s quote would equally apply.

    As for “liberalism”, I’m not sure that trying to refine it’s meaning with concepts like “utilitarianism” and “egalitarianism” helps outside of narrow circles since the vast majority of “liberals” wouldn’t have any idea what the former means (I didn’t until the last few years) and probably think of egalitarianism (if at all) in its equal opportunity rather than its equal outcome sense. I can recall no instance of anyone I have ever known arguing explicitly for the latter. Many of us do, of course, effectively support redistribution since that is a necessary consequence of government implemented programs aimed at equalizing opportunity, but redistribution per se isn’t the objective.

    In serious discussions of complex issues, I wish people would simply critique individually positions they oppose. Ascribing them to some mythical homogeneous group with a supposedly consistent and dogmatic agenda seems to me to be unhelpful.

    Back to the artists. I reread some of the Nabokov chapter in C, I, & S and have a little different take on Rorty’s complaints. It’s admittedly a bit fuzzy in my mind, but I understand him to be arguing that Nabokov didn’t recognize the public-private distinction Rorty emphasizes, envisioned himself as writing for private purposes (ie, as being a “strong poet” – hence, the “art for art’s sake” bit), and criticized those who instead perform the equally respectable (“liberal”) public function of bringing cruelty to the attention of their readership. (I gather that Rorty considers Nabokov ironically to have been only modestly successful at the former, outstandingly successful at the latter.) I’m probably missing something, but I didn’t pick up anything in the discussion that I would associate with “political art”, except if defined in the very loose sense I addressed in the last comment.

  23. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. March 2009 at 19:47

    I have to say that I’m completely baffled as to what your position is. Either from a micro point:

    ‘Certainly none address the welfare cost of an excise tax.’

    Which I didn’t take literally, but as an argument that Shakespeare didn’t get elementary microeconomics–and he clearly did. Which I tried to explicate with a few examples. (Jack Cade being a Mao-like demagogue.)

    Or, from a macro-political view. The plays about the Wars of the Roses being about as politically complex as it ever gets.

    I can appreciate it, if you don’t want to waste any more time beating this horse. My position is that great artists such as Shakespeare and Schiller (The Wallenstein Trilogy) can make great art from politics, but– to drop millions of miles, George Clooney and Oliver Stone, are in way over their heads.

  24. Gravatar of Carl Futia Carl Futia
    25. March 2009 at 03:33


    Here is my test comment to the post “Is the Term Political Art….(part II)


  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. March 2009 at 04:15

    Charles, I agree with you on the terms capitalism and socialism, but slightly disagree on ‘liberalism’. I think it very interesting that the term liberalism has been applied to very different ideologies such as classical liberalism, left liberalism, and neoliberalism. The standard view is that these ideologies have different values. I see them as having similar values, and different worldviews.

    I also think those values are roughly utilitarian. I am not saying that most liberalism know what utilitarianism is. Rather I am saying that when I talk to liberals (of the left or right) they justify their policy preferences in roughly utilitarian terms. Of course not precisely utilitarian, nothing is precise in the social sciences. I am a right wing liberal, and am only roughly utilitarian. If you insisted on precision I don’t even know how we could have any sort of discussion in the social sciences. Am I to assume that when you talk with your friends about ideological issues you never use terms like liberal, conservative, fascist, racist, etc? All these terms (and many more) have very fuzzy meanings.

    No one can accuse me of lumping liberals together. There are all sorts of issues on which liberals disagree (free markets, free speech, interventionism in foreign policy, drug legalization, I could go on and on.) The reason they disagree is not so much different values, but different worldviews.

    I also think you misunderstood my point about egalitarianism. I don’t mean to suggest that liberals favor equal outcomes–as I said that would lead to mass starvation–literally nothing could be worse. Instead I argue that liberals believe every person’s welfare is of equal value. Think about how the welfare of illegal immigrants in implicitly valued by liberals and conservatives in the current immigration debate. Even most liberals don’t value illegal’s rights as highly as native born Americans–but they come closer than conservatives.

    I don’t think it is just a question of equal opportunity. Most liberals feel that even if given equal opportunities, some people (due to either bad genes or bad luck) will end up struggling. Most liberals still want to give them a helping hand.

    I’m not sure if I got the Rorty essay right. I thought he had responded to Nabokov’s dismissal of political art, by arguing that Nabokov’s art was critical of cruelty, and thus was political. You may be right that my memory failed me–I’ll try to reread the essay this summer.

    Patrick, I did mean the welfare cost of an excise tax literally. Of course Shakespeare, like any artist can address commonsense elements of economics. But current policy disputes having nothing to do with the common sense idea that if something costs more people will buy less of it. Rather, what divides liberals is the economistic worldview, discussed in my essay the previous Sunday. The welfare cost of an excise tax isn’t just something the public doesn’t know much about, THEY DON”T EVEN KNOW IT EXISTS. It is too abstract. Therefore you can never show it in a story. When I talk to non-economists about public policy they almost always want to know who gains and who loses. I want to just shake them and say “That’s not the issue!” we’re all liberals here (meaning in my discussion), we all have the same basic values, none of our policy disputes are about values, about fairness. Those are the things that Shakespeare can show in his art, an unfair outcome. But the policy disputes are about technical issues of efficiency. 30 million Chinese didn’t starve because the system was unfair–it was more equal than the U.S. They starved because it was inefficient. The welfare cost of an excise tax is its inefficiency.
    I did a poor job of explaining myself, and may return to the subject again Sunday. I did not say artists couldn’t or shouldn’t engage in political art. But I did use the term “complex” where I probably should have used something like “abstract”, so that was my fault. I certainly understand that Shakespeare could portray the complex political games people in power play, perhaps better than anyone else (and certainly far better than social scientists. So in that respect we entirely agree.

    Regarding the Mao-like demagogue. Let me point out that the aspect of communism that I argued is hard to critique through art is the sharing–WHICH IS THE WORST PART OF COMMUNISM,WORSE THAN THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS. But communism had lots of non-liberal features that are easy to critique through art–like the cult of Mao, the repression, etc. Indeed I gave an example of effective anti-Mao political art from the film “To Live” so no one can accuse me of missing that point.

  26. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    26. March 2009 at 09:08

    ‘Of course Shakespeare, like any artist can address commonsense elements of economics.’

    If you think the law of demand is common sense, try explaining to someone you meet on a public sidewalk why gas cost over $4.00 per gallon last summer. And, that was over 230 years since Smith gave us the diamond-water paradox.

    How many in the audience in 1597, do you think ‘got’ the line about the price of pork? But, if you insist that the test of art imitating life is the inefficiencies of taxation, I give you Russ Roberts’ first novel:

    I chose the year 2005 to play it safe. That would give Ed enough of a taste of a world where Americans were free to trade with foreigners.

    “Where are we?” asked Ed.

    “My friend, we are in the parking lot of a movie theater in your hometown of Star, Illinois, in the year 2005.”

    “Why would a movie theater need such a large parking lot?”

    “There are 16 theaters here, and they need a lot of space.”

    “Sixteen theaters! What happened to the Bijou?”

    “The Bijou, downtown? I’m afraid it was torn down in the name of something called ‘urban renewal.’ “

    “That’s too bad. Can we see the Stellar Television factory?”

    “I’m afraid it’s gone, Ed.”

    “Gone!” cried Ed, leaning against a Honda Accord for emotional support.

    “I’m afraid so. In fact, this multiplex””the modern name for a collection of theaters””stands on the very spot where your plant once stood.”

    “I’ll be damned, why”””

    “Ed, watch your language.You may get your wish.”

    “Sorry. Is anyone making televisions in the United States anymore?”

    “They are. In fact, they’re doing it with lower labor and raw material costs than you did in your best year.”

    “Must be Motorola. They always gave me a good fight.”

    “Motorola made its last television in 1974.”

    “Then who is it?”

    “I’ll show you.We’ll have to leave Star for a bit. But that shouldn’t be any problem for the people Upstairs.”

    “Where are we now, Dave?”

    “Rahway, New Jersey.”

    “Where’s the television factory?”

    “You’re looking at it.”

    “But the sign says ‘Merck and Co., Inc., A Pharmaceutical Company.’

    Doesn’t that mean they make drugs?”

    “Indeed they do, Ed. They send some of those drugs to Japan. In return, Japan sends America televisions. There are two ways to make a television set””the direct way, and the roundabout way. The direct way is
    to build a factory like yours in Star and combine raw materials with people and machines to produce televisions.With the roundabout way of making televisions, you make televisions by making something else, such as drugs, and trading the drugs for televisions. Japan’s drug industry isn’t
    able to efficiently create and supply all of Japan’s demand for drugs, so Japan imports drugs and exports televisions.What you see appears to be a drug manufacturer. But they also produce televisions for Americans to
    enjoy by exporting some of their production.”

    Okay, the issue in question was a total ban on Japanese televisions, not a tariff, but Roberts goes on to demonstrate the potential welfare losses that would have come with Ed’s (a 1960s TV set manufacturer) protectionist politics.

    No, it’s not great art–no offense meant, Russ, if you’re reading–but it is possible to express counterintuitive ideas in novelistic form.

  27. Gravatar of Charles Charles
    26. March 2009 at 12:54

    Scott –

    “Am I to assume that when you talk with your friends about ideological issues you never use terms like liberal, conservative, fascist, racist, etc?”

    If you replace “never” with “seldom” and exclude “racist”, actually yes. To repeat, I don’t find terms like those useful – a judgment that is borne out every time I hear/read people hotly debating what they “really” mean.

    “I thought [Rorty] had responded to Nabokov’s dismissal of political art, by arguing that Nabokov’s art was critical of cruelty, and thus was political.”

    Agreed. I think my adding the stuff about Rorty’s public-private distinction just clouded that straightforward point. Sorry.

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. March 2009 at 17:12

    Patrick, I’m afraid you’re going to say I’m impossible to please, but your example reminds me of the hypothetical in my essay, where I conceded that someone in a long stage play could read out an economics textbook for an hour in the middle of the play. I know this isn’t that bad, but it isn’t really showing anything through art, it’s pausing the art for a few lines to deliver a little example like you might find in Mankiw’s principles text.

    I agree that if you allow art unlimited license, I lose the argument. You can always have characters speak an intellectual argument in favor of any particular political view. Then it’s a debate over whether these views are really coming out of the art, or just tacked on. I’ll let other readers decide, but I still think art must SHOW things, not just tell. (Especially great art.)

    BTW, I think demand alone is pretty easy, but supply and demand is very, very hard for people to understand (as in the example I provided in the previous post.)

    Charles, I can’t complain if you use language precisely. I do agree that there is some merit in your point. At the very least I could be a bit more precise by always saying “left liberal”, “centrist liberal” or “right wing liberal”.

  29. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    27. March 2009 at 09:55

    Well, well, turns out that a play I hadn’t read does deal with the welfare losses due to taxation.

    Henry VIII, Act I, Scene 2, opens with Henry’s Queen informing him that Cardinal Wolsey has overburdened the population with taxation, and the people are near rebellion because of it. Consider:

    Henry VIII. Lady mine, proceed.

    Queen Katharine. I am solicited, not by a few,
    And those of true condition, that your subjects
    Are in great grievance: there have been commissions
    Sent down among ’em, which hath flaw’d the heart
    Of all their loyalties: wherein, although,
    My good lord cardinal, they vent reproaches
    Most bitterly on you, as putter on
    Of these exactions, yet the king our master””
    Whose honour heaven shield from soil!””even he escapes not
    Language unmannerly, yea, such which breaks
    The sides of loyalty, and almost appears
    In loud rebellion.

    A nobleman explains the damage done:

    Duke of Norfolk. Not almost appears,
    It doth appear; for, upon these taxations,
    The clothiers all, not able to maintain
    The many to them longing, have put off
    The spinsters, carders, fullers, weavers, who,
    Unfit for other life, compell’d by hunger
    And lack of other means, in desperate manner
    Daring the event to the teeth, are all in uproar,
    And danger serves among then!

    Henry VIII. Taxation!
    Wherein? and what taxation? My lord cardinal,
    You that are blamed for it alike with us,
    Know you of this taxation?

    The queen explains:

    The subjects’ grief
    Comes through commissions, which compel from each
    The sixth part of his substance, to be levied
    Without delay; and the pretence for this
    Is named, your wars in France….

    And Henry responds:

    Henry VIII. By my life,
    This is against our pleasure.

    [snip Wolsey’s posturing]

    Henry VIII [to Wolsey]. Things done well,
    And with a care, exempt themselves from fear;
    Things done without example, in their issue
    Are to be fear’d. Have you a precedent
    Of this commission? I believe, not any.
    We must not rend our subjects from our laws,
    And stick them in our will. Sixth part of each?
    A trembling contribution! Why, we take
    From every tree lop, bark, and part o’ the timber;
    And, though we leave it with a root, thus hack’d,
    The air will drink the sap. To every county
    Where this is question’d send our letters, with
    Free pardon to each man that has denied
    The force of this commission: pray, look to’t;
    I put it to your care.

    Henry being Queen Elizabeth’s father, there’s surely some kissing up by making Dear Ol’ Dad look like a good guy, but there it is.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. March 2009 at 16:58

    OK Patrick, you win. Your example does get at the welfare cost of an excise tax. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that one can’t find in Shakespeare. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t contain the Quantity Theory of Money somewhere as well.)

    What I need to do is rethink what I am trying to say. I still do think I have a point, but I am not sure exactly how to make it. On the one hand I could argue that even the quote you gave me is more “telling” than showing. But obviously “telling” is an important part of the narrative arts. One thing that is interesting about the Shakespeare quotation, is that a modern audience might have trouble understanding why everyone had to lose their jobs. After all, we’re all told that supply-side economics is bunk. So why didn’t the clothiers just pass on the taxes in higher prices to consumers? Maybe they lost foreign markets. If I am not mistaken, in the old days kings often aimed for the top of the Laffer Curve, the tax rate that brought them the greatest revenue. Perhaps that made it easier for 1600s-era audiences to see the devastating effects of high tax rates.

    In any case, thanks for all your work. You have showed me that my theory is not yet ready for prime-time. I still think my comparison between Animal Farm and the Great Leap Forward is interesting, however.

  31. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    28. March 2009 at 07:34

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right about the quantity theory, inasmuch as the 16th century saw a tripling of Europe’s price level thanks to the gold and silver Spain brought back from the new world.

    I know enough about the Elizabethan era to know she was Lafferlike. A. L. Rowse:

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. March 2009 at 09:30

    Patrick, That comment about English taxation is interesting. it could be one factor explaining why England’s economic development gradually outpaced the continent. I bought Hume’s 6 volume history of England, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading it.

  33. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    30. March 2009 at 16:47

    Scott, kings could not achieve very high rates of taxation in the past. John Nye in “War, Wine, and Taxes” explains this along with the myth of English free trade vs French mercantilism. Greg Clark points out how close to the “Washington Consensus” of recommended policies for economic growth medieval Europe was in “Farewell to Alms”.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. March 2009 at 13:10

    TGGP, You are probably right, but that’s because people barely had enough to survive. But this means the maximum point of the Laffer curve would come at much lower tax rates. So the public would have seen some pretty painful real effects at rates much lower than we pay (and much, much lower than the Swedes pay.) So I still may be right, but didn’t explain my point clearly enough.

  35. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    31. March 2009 at 14:09

    That would gibe with Clark, but not Nye. According to Nye, the English government was actually able to increase its tax revenues (though it seemed low tax to many previous historians) through raising compliance by creating a protected cartel of brewers. The French government put high taxes on lots of stuff, but there was lots of shirking and the government wasn’t capable of doing much about it.

  36. Gravatar of Arare Litus Arare Litus
    1. April 2009 at 04:30

    “Why can’t art present complex political ideas?”

    Like usual, great post. It may be helpful to distinguish between complex in scope and subtle (hence “difficult”).

    I would recommend watching “Baraka”, a movie that “argues through art” that society is a process that is natural – including modern society. This is a subtle point, or two actually (seeing society as a dynamic process, and as natural) that can dramatically change worldview. I personally think that these views really underlie economics mentality, and that Baraka can offer a convincing intuitive argument for them. Don’t worry – no rambling monologues, in fact – no words at all.

    Not only is it hard to show the unseen, but if the scope is wide it is impossible to distill it down into a tiny sliver that portrays anything – and the wider that gap between the idea to be presented, and the audience, the harder it is to bridge the gap (as art essentially acts as a trigger, using emotion, pre-existing ideas and stances, built in bias, etc to engage the “consumer”).

  37. Gravatar of Arare Litus Arare Litus
    1. April 2009 at 10:05

    Russ Roberts wrote a book “The Price of Everything”, which is supposidly a good read. I’m not sure if it suffers from the Ayn Rand syndrome (stilted artifical dialogues, and long monologues), but it may be an example of “economics via art (story)”. I believe it compares free markets versus heavily regulated markets.

  38. Gravatar of Ray Mangum Ray Mangum
    1. April 2009 at 13:19

    I think you take too seriously Rorty’s self-serving argument about literary art being inherently liberal (read: socialist). True, in the 20th century, that mostly has been the case, but there is no necessary reason for this to be so, and your article already provides some striking counterexamples, such as Nabokov and T.S. Eliot. (And what of novelists Yukio Mishima or Louis-Ferdinand Celine? Poets like Ezra Pound? A literary critic like H.L. Mencken?) But the wider a perspective you take, the less likely you are to conclude that literature is necessarily liberal, any more than it is necessarily Christian. In short, Rorty’s claim (which remains the unarticulated prejudice of the majority of the literary world) is nonsense on stilts. One would do well to read the critic Camille Paglia, particularly “Sexual Pesonae” to see how much humanist liberals actually get wrong in their analysis of the arts, including literature.

    While I think that the aesthetic and political dimensions are somewhat set against one another, (as recognized as early as Plato, who preferred politics and would ban the poet from his utopia) that politicizing the creation and consumption of art diminishes aesthetic quality and that attempting to aestheticize politics (to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase vis a vis the Nazis) dehumanizes political life, I do not think that art, narrative or otherwise, is incapable of rendering complex political or economic ideas. That is so often fails to do so has more to do with the sociology of modern literati than any inherent failure of the medium.

    Also, while specifically “narrative” arts, which would include film as well as the novel, might make us more sympathetic to the “other” (at least for a while), and are therefore more humanistic, there’s no reason to think that this ought to make it shed a flattering light on socialism, communism, or even liberal democracy, which all have their victims.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. April 2009 at 14:06

    Amare, Thanks for the comments. I need to work on my idea further, because “complex” doesn’t really capture what I am getting at. It’s more a mixture of:

    1. The counterintuitive
    2. The invisible effects
    3. Scale effects (things only noticeable in masses of people.)

    Ray, If this is your first post you may have missed earlier posts where I define “liberal” to include both “right” (classical and neo-) and left versions of liberalism. It is more a question of utilitarian values than any particular beliefs about policy, in my definition. So I’m not sure I’d agree that Nabokov is not liberal, but I admit I don’t know much about his politics. His art doesn’t seem (to me) to have “conservative values.” I have read stuff by Paglia, and I don’t see it as conflicting with my views at all. Her views are certainly liberal, as I define the term.
    The most influential narrative arts in shaping public opinion are overwhelming liberal at their core, despite “conservative” themes like patriotism and law and order. Furthermore, they are becoming more and more liberal every day. And I don’t agree with Rorty’s assumption that liberal is equivalent to “left”. Like most non-economists, Rorty doesn’t understand right wing liberalism. You probably know much more about literature than I do, so I’ll keep an open mind on this issue—thanks for the thoughtful comments.

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