This Month’s Cato Unbound: Liberty, Commerce, and Literature

This month’s Cato Unbound is on the theme of Liberty, Commerce, and Literature. We all know that the western canon is often extraordinarily critical of the free market, sometimes without its authors appearing to understand very much about economics at all. But why should this be? Literature as we know it owes much to commercial society. Before the early modern era, one could almost never make a living as a writer. People read many fewer books – if they could read at all – and serious literature frequently belonged to the upper classes alone. It would be odd if literature were so unaware of the institutions that made it so popular in today’s commercial, market-driven world.

In her lead essay for Cato Unbound, literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. Good literature is not mere propaganda – for either side – and readings that collapse the great books into anti-capitalist polemic are likely to be missing a lot.

In his response essay, Robert A. Heinlein biographer William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of these “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

Poet and literary theorist Frederick Turner suggests a structural explanation for why scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon – which is not, he adds, really that anti-commercial at all: Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. Both built up their own legitimacy by arguing against that of mere businessmen. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

Libertarian activist and science fiction scholar Amy H. Sturgis adds that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.

As always, our panelists will continue to discuss and debate through the end of the month. We also welcome your letters, which we may publish at our option. Send them to JKuznicki [at] cato [dot] org.