The New Yorker and the Beatles

by Don Boudreaux on March 10, 2006

in Competition, Standard of Living, Trade

Each week, the final page of the New Yorker is devoted to that magazine’s "Cartoon Caption Contest."  The contest is this: a single-frame cartoon is presented with no caption.  Readers are invited to submit their own captions.

In the next-week’s issue, that cartoon appears again, but beneath it are three "finalists" captions — the captions that the editors choose as being the three best submitted for that cartoon.

Readers are then invited to vote (online, of course) on which of the three captions is the best.  Then, two weeks after the uncaptioned cartoon first appeared in the magazine, it appears for a third time — this third time featuring the winning caption.

The first thing that struck me about this "caption contest" is the difficulty I have trying to think up clever captions.  With rare exceptions, each new uncaptioned cartoon is one that sparks in me no clever ideas.  I try and try, but almost always come up empty-minded.

So when each cartoon appears for its second time, with the three "finalists" captions printed beneath it, I’m consistently and considerably impressed by how imaginative, witty, and clever people are.

I’m looking now at the March 13th issue of the New Yorker.  This week’s uncaptioned cartoon shows a 60-ish couple walking into a  church filled with a well-stocked bar and two unshaven bar bums gazing disinterestedly at this couple’s entrance.  The man entering the church has his wife on one arm, a bible in the other, and his mouth is open, saying something.

But what’s he saying?  I’ll be darned if I can think of a clever caption to put in his mouth.

Now I look just above this cartoon to the one first printed in last-week’s issue.  Each of the three "finalists" captions that accompany last-week’s cartoon are very, very good — indeed, one is rip-roaringly funny.

One of these "finalists" captions was submitted by a Mr. Mako from Connecticut; another by a Mr. Cassidy from California; and the third by a Mr. Flores from Florida.

Now suppose the New Yorker starts a policy of not accepting captions submitted by anyone living west of the Mississippi.  What would happen to the quality of the captions?  It would fall.  Mr. Cassidy’s caption wouldn’t have been considered simply because he lives in Los Angeles.

But even if this week’s three best "finalists" captions were all submitted by people living east of the Mississippi, the quality of the captions will inevitably fall over time — perhaps not next week or even two weeks from now.  It’s quite possible that the best captions during the next few weeks all will be submitted by people living east of the Mississippi.

But how will we know?  With Californians, Minnesotans, Texans and other westerners prevented from contributing their creative ideas to the cartoons — prevented from competing with easterners in the Cartoon Caption Contest — we can’t possibly know that any caption that actually wins the magazine’s contest in any week is truly the best that is humanly possible.

And so it is with investors and products.  By preventing certain people from investing in your country because they aren’t citizens of your country, or by preventing certain people from selling goods and services in your country because they are produced by people who aren’t citizens of your country, you diminish the size of the pool of creative ideas available to help you.

I’m reminded here of one of Paul McCartney’s lines in his lyrics for the Beatles’ song "We Can Work It Out":

Think of what you’re saying.  You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s alright.

Think of what I’m saying: creative human insights are the driving force of our prosperity.  By allowing xenophobia and protectionist rent-seekers to restrict the number of people who contribute their ideas to the market process, we inevitably reduce — and perhaps even reverse — the rate of economic growth. Our prosperity will be lower and lower than it would otherwise be.

And this lower rate of economic growth and the correspondingly lower standard of living might well never be revealed by the data.


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