TCS Daily


The Futile Conceit

By Ilya Shapiro - April 4, 2005 12:00 AM

GREENWICH VILLAGE, NYC -- We know why intellectuals hate capitalism. In his famous essay on the subject, the late great Robert Nozick reduced this polemical phenomenon to a simple matter of resentment and envy -- basic (and base) human nature. Highly educated, "smart" people, after years of straight A's and being the apple of their parents' and teachers' eye, don't like the fact that "the market" rewards crass Wall Street traders, craven executives, and other uncultured gears in the corporate machine -- let alone Silicon Valley college drop-outs and semi-literate professional athletes -- much more than it does their refined ilk.

Building on such resentments, certain elites develop what F. A. Hayek labeled "the fatal conceit" that a political structure that empowers such a flawed economic system must itself be flawed, or at least must be harnessed for more righteous ends. Taking for granted that they both "deserve" more fruits for their abstruse mental labors, and that their superior intellects have a better grasp on how society should function, purveyors of a misplaced cognitive dissonance make common cause with the true losers of capitalism -- the unskilled, uneducated, unmotivated lumpen proletariat -- to rebake the economic pie (smaller, perhaps, but fairer). Thus the know-it-all set proves itself to be little more than modern-day Know Nothings.

But why do artists, musicians, and others at the sharp edge of the cultural wedge display a similar absence of humility, an equal love for central planning, even a sympathy for the "squares" of Harvard Yard over the freaky dynamism of counter-intuitive professors like Milton Friedman and Richard Epstein? The glib answer is that they're misguided, these bourgeois bohemians who have made Haight-Asbury and Washington Square (and countless college town imitators) the center of anti-establishment dissent in America. Quite unlike the resentful intellectuals, angry hippies and impressionable kids simply want economic "justice" without understanding, for example, the ridiculousness of being an anarchist for increased WTO regulation -- or, for that matter, the difference between military action that fights fascism and that which promotes it.

And there is a certain sense to this simplistic interpretation; your average hipster hasn't read Ludwig von Mises (except, ironically, if he takes economics at NYU) and, given the politically correct claptrap he's taught before he escapes to his creative pursuits, why wouldn't he think that any policy releasing the corrupting forces of the market is a scheme to enslave and exploit the masses?

But it's not like most red state voters, college educated or not, spend their time reading the (Federalist Society-published) Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. To make the obvious point, you have to look past economics to understand the left-wing biases of the creative classes: for cultural types, "it's the culture, stupid."

And the political party in this country that espouses -- some would say pays lip service to -- freedom through capitalism is also the one that wants to regulate who you sleep with and what kind of music you listen to, as well as encouraging you to pray for eternal salvation. Yes, those primarily concerned about social and cultural expression without wanting to analyze the niceties of Social Security reform or ponder tax policy will naturally just pick up the economic ideas of a party that, again based on rhetoric, appears to stand for diversity and freedom of expression.

This mental process saves on decision-making costs and so is not off-hand a completely irrational way of approaching politics. Which is why, in a two-party system (or a simplistic "liberal/conservative" ideological model), it takes a lot of effort to be a libertarian, or classical liberal -- or Purple American.

Then you add in the fact that artists and artistes overwhelmingly inhabit urban areas, which are, across history and nation, the incubators of radicalism and revolution. For reasons of political anthropology, when you live so close to your fellow man, enjoying the benefits and suffering the stresses of city life, you're more likely to throw your lot in with urbane intellectuals and their plans for social engineering.

Now, were punks and other cool kids rational actors, they would see that what is important to them -- living free from coercion, not having to conform to social norms except when that intrudes on these same freedoms of your fellow cats and chicks -- is best promoted by an economic system that encourages individual choice. One that, without any central authority, harnesses the work and play and style and taste of each person to create a dynamic society.

I mean, nobody really wants to eliminate private property (dude, where's my car?) -- and we have to wait till we're dead to know for sure if there's a heaven -- but Lennon was onto something when he imagined no countries. And even though we live not in a utopia but rather within the realities of the international system, there's nothing to stop us from embracing "no countries in one country" -- to paraphrase the (homonymic) other Lenin.

That is, if your touchstone is cultural individuality, what better way to expand choice and creative opportunity and let a thousand flowers bloom than to reduce the power of the state? That is what we pundits should be showing our artistic -- or merely stylish -- brethren, and it is an argument far more compelling than any number of Laffer curves or lectures on comparative advantage.

Which is why I've stopped worrying about the folks I meet in my travels "out there" and instead have begun to internalize some of what they can teach me. Just as no man has ever wooed his beloved by showing a PowerPoint presentation of the reasons they should remain together for eternity, the best way to make the case for free markets is by showing just how hip they are.

Ilya Shapiro a Washington lawyer, writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS. His last contribution was a love letter to his iPod.

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