Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture

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Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture edited by Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox Ludwig von Mises Institute * 2010 * 509 pages $20.00

Reviewed by Troy Camplin

Literary Theory: An Anthology (ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan) is one of the foremost anthologies of literary theory. Among its sections is one titled "Political Criticism: From Marxism to Cultural Materialism." With the exception of Hegel, all the authors are Marxists. This is the entirety ofeconomic analysis in literature: Marxism. At least, it was.

Now there is Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which introduces Austrian economics to literary criticism. This anthology's stated purpose - to "explore the possibility that forms ofeconomic thinking sympathetic to capitalism may be able to illuminate our understanding of literature in new ways" - is not entirely without precedent, but Cantor and Cox's book is distinct in its focus on one tradition ofeconomic thought: Austrian economics.

In a pursuit as individualistic as writing, it may seem surprising that this is the first attempt to apply Austrian economics, with its methodological individualism, to literary production, while such ant i- individualistic worldviews as Marxism have dominated. But if we understand that socialism is a top-down approach to economic organization, perhaps this is not so surprising. Authors engage in top-down organization whenever they write - so the application of this process to social processes seems, to many of them, logical. Even many experts in sociology or economics do not make the proper distinctions between top-down organizations and bottom-up orders, so why expect writers to do so?

The anthology authors' use of methodological individualism does not mean they view the artist as an isolated genius. Their approach rather places writers in their historical-cultural contexts. Writers are influenced by the world they live in. There is feedback, which informs the writer and influences future works. The Austrian approach to economics views the individual as a social being, and so too the artist. It emphasizes the subjectivity of value, which Cantor observes should make it more attractive than the objective theory of Marxism, since literature is particularly focused on subjective experiences. Spontaneous-order theory helps us develop a better idea of how literary artists create works of art. From it we can develop a sociology of artistic production superior to what is possible through Marxist-informed theories.

Cantor devotes his introductory essay to "showing how . . . Hayek's idea of spontaneous order can help to resolve one of the central dilemmas of literary theory, the conflict between the New Criticism and Deconstruction. …