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Freeman Essay #34: A Review of Tyler Cowen’s “In Praise of Commercial Culture”

In the May 1999 Freeman, I reviewed Tyler Cowen’s brilliant 1998 book, In Praise of Commercial Culture.  My review is below the fold.

For most of this century, capitalism was regularly accused of not delivering the goods as efficiently as could socialism. Today, this accusation packs as much persuasive force as do claims that ouija boards foster communication between the living and the dead. Even capitalism’s most strident critics today admit that capitalism can’t be beat at satisfying people’s material needs. “In fact,” bark the critics, “that’s the real problem with capitalism: it’s too responsive to consumers!” Capitalism’s unparalleled capacity for delivering new‘n’improved things to satisfy the vulgar needs of the masses supposedly results in a shallow culture, whose dumbed-down denizens recognize Ronald McDonald’s mug more readily than they recognize Mozart’s music.

Unlike the productivity-based criticisms of capitalism, the cultural criticism of free markets comes not only from the left, but also from the right. When the likes of hyper-feminist Catharine MacKinnon are joined in their crusade against free markets by influential conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and William Kristol, the resulting coalition might well turn out to be fatal to capitalism.

The menace of this left-right alliance against the alleged cultural inadequacies of capitalism is reason alone to applaud—loudly, while standing!—Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture. But this book’s virtues go well beyond the assistance it delivers in the intellectual battle against those who would substitute the whims of a political elite for the wishes of individuals. Cowen’s book is also a wellhead of information about art, music, and literature, brimming with economically inspired insights into the patterns of culture and people’s responses to those patterns.

Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, uses as a springboard in his book the continuing debate between “cultural pessimists” and “cultural optimists.” He casts his lot squarely with the (outnumbered) optimists. His case for cultural optimism is woven skillfully from sound economics and a careful study of cultural history.

One element of Cowen’s argument grows from his exploration of the sources of cultural pessimism. Many pessimists are simply unimaginative old coots—as Cowen writes, they “identify great culture with what they know and have learned to love.” If you spend, say, the first 40 years of your life listening only to the music of baroque composers, when you first hear the music of romantics such as Tchaikovsky, it sounds barbarous. In economic terms, you dislike post-baroque music because you haven’t yet developed the human capital required to appreciate it.

Cowen also exposes the self-centeredness of many cultural pessimists. If the masses can enjoy a new work immediately, cultural pessimists haughtily pan it; but if the cultural pessimists themselves are baffled by the work, they dismiss it as illegitimate. Each pessimist regards his or her own unique accumulation of cultural human capital to be the only legitimate accumulation.

Another source of cultural pessimism that Cowen identifies is fear of the future. Many people truly fear for society when they see its cultural basis changing. This fear, however, owes far more to lack of imagination than to any evidence that cultural change necessarily portends social dry rot or disintegration. The culture of 1990s America differs from that of 1950s America—but is it really worse (as many people believe)?

Workers’ greater productivity today means that they have more time to enjoy cultural amenities. Musical recordings of all types are more readily available than ever, as are broadcast performances and videotapes of dance, opera, and theater. The recent advent of book superstores brings to most Americans a selection of books that as recently as a decade ago was available only to residents of a few large cities. Far from destroying culture, the free market is bringing it within reach of more people than ever.

Mention of these bookstores points to a third source of cultural pessimism—interest-group agitation. Among those who wail about the cultural Armageddon allegedly foretold by book superstores are smaller book retailers. Those retailers naturally don’t like the efficiencies that characterize Barnes & Noble and Borders. But it’s uncouth to complain honestly about these new merchants (“I don’t like ‘em because they’re better than I am at selling books!”). So smaller booksellers instead ominously prophesy cultural damnation if the book superstores aren’t stopped. Cowen’s discussion, replete with examples, of how cultural pessimism has been used through the centuries to mask attempts at undermining consumer choice is fascinating.

My only complaint is that Cowen is too easy on those who support government funding of the arts. Given the wealth of evidence assembled here on how markets promote a vibrant culture, he could easily have called for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts, but does not.

Reading Cowen’s book is itself an act of cultural betterment; it is learned and sophisticated without being pedantic. It complements nicely the economics of the late Julian Simon, as well as the work of Reason editor Virginia Postrel. The message of each of these authors is that we should welcome, not fear, the results of freedom.