Friday, October 10, 2003


I make no secret of the fact that I am the non-Republican of the Scholars. Yes, I'm one of those libertarians that some others in the Alliance have scoffed, largely because I'm as pro-free-market as any Alliance member. (C'mon! I dare ya!) And one of the critiques of free markets that I often hear is that it creates a mass, mean, lowbrow culture.

I've recently added two blogs that are worth reading for their consideration of modern culture. Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have started The Marginal Revolution; Cowen in particular has written extensively on how capitalism creates culture. Their blog linked recently to an interview with a music historian on how capitalism creates music. It's worth a listen.

Terry Teachout, meanwhile, writes on About Last Night:

By maximizing and facilitating cultural choice, information-age capitalism fused with identity politics to bring about the disintegration of the common middlebrow culture of my youth. Let�s return for a moment to those unlettered folks who don�t know who painted the "Mona Lisa." I assume, since you�re reading this, that you�re distressed by this unmistakable symptom of the widespread cultural illiteracy with which what Winston Churchill liked to call "the English-speaking peoples" are currently afflicted. But it so happens that a great many American intellectuals, most of them academics, would respond to your distress with a question: so what? To them, the very idea of "high art" is anathema, a murderous act of cultural imperialism. They don�t think Leonardo da Vinci should be "privileged" (to use one of their favorite pieces of jargon) over the local neighborhood graffiti artist. And as preposterous as this notion may seem to you, it is all but taken for granted among a frighteningly large swath of the postmodern American intelligentsia.

Which brings us right back to the problem of cultural illiteracy. How can we do anything about it if we can�t even agree on the fact that it is a problem�or about what basic cultural facts ordinary people should be expected to know? The answer is simple: we can�t.
I'd like to see a discussion between Cowen and Teachout some day: Are their views contradictory, and if so how can a pro-free marketer like myself resolve them? Or is there something in common here? After all, it's capitalism that increased middlebrow culture. It seems to me that Teachout's view stands as a critique of the information age. Erin O'Connor also relates Teachout's critique to Virginia Postrel's new book. I have both Postrel and Cowen on my (overloaded) nightstand of books to read. Any suggestions of what to add?