Capitalist Culture

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Few people disagree anymore that capitalism is much better than government at delivering the goods—food, cars, shoes, and the other materials of everyday life. Former socialist economist Robert Heilbroner made the point succinctly shortly after the Berlin Wall came down: “The battle between socialism and capitalism is over. Capitalism won.” But many of capitalism’s critics—and even many of its defenders—subscribe to the age-old belief that capitalism hurts culture. Does it? Actually, a strong case can be made that capitalism nurtures culture.

Of course, to discuss capitalism’s effect on culture, you need to make a basic value judgment: What is good culture and what is bad culture? I am not a cultural relativist who believes that no standards can be used to judge culture. I do think, though, that judging the goodness or badness of culture is an order of magnitude more difficult than judging the goodness or badness of generosity (good) or murder (bad).

In this short article, I can’t do justice to the complex issue of what good or bad culture is. But here’s what I can say because it’s supported by centuries of evidence: Whatever your criterion for culture, the odds are extremely high that, with capitalism, that is, with free markets, you will get more of the kind of culture you want than you will get when government has a heavy hand over the economy.

Go back to the fact that capitalism “delivers the goods” (i.e., that free markets and private property, when in place long enough, create growing prosperity for the vast majority of people). This widespread prosperity gives people the means to buy books and other forms of art. In the so-called good old days, books were prohibitively expensive partly because people’s incomes were low and partly because the cost of paper and printing was high. But capitalist-initiated improvements in mass production and mass marketing and increases in general wealth changed that. In his 1998 book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, points out that, whereas in 1760, a common laborer had to work two whole days to earn enough money to buy a cheap book, today the cost of a paperback is slightly more than the hourly minimum wage. As wealth has increased relative to the cost of books, people have bought more books. In 1989, for example, the average American bought eight books, up from three in 1947. Presumably also because of increased wealth, in 1997, 35 percent of Americans visited an art museum, up from 22 percent in 1982.

Now you may not regard a Tom Clancy novel as a work of art and so being able to get his novels cheaply might not count for much. But that’s all right, because those same productivity improvements in production and marketing, and that same improvement in prosperity, are what allow you to buy any books you care to buy more cheaply than at any time in the past. Contrary to many people’s impression, the whole blockbuster phenomenon—in which a few works account for a large part of all sales—is in a long-term decline as increasing wealth and population allow various artists to produce for niche markets. Today’s superstores—Borders and Barnes and Noble—have helped niche writers, and best-sellers account for no more than 3 percent of superstores’ sales.

U.S. poet Wallace Stevens worked full time in the insurance industry while remaining a prolific writer. “He was a very imaginative claims man,” noted one former colleague.

And just as the Gutenberg press revolutionized book publishing by making books much cheaper to produce, the Internet is making publishing even cheaper. Two years ago, neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote that although someone could put Paradise Lost on-line, “more likely is that something like a Cliffs Notes version is on-line.” But with cyberspace virtually costless, that trade-off is nonexistent; there’s room for both. In fact, Forbes ASAP writer Virginia Postrel, responding to Himmelfarb, noted that a Yahoo search turned up five full-text versions of Milton’s great poem. Capitalism has also allowed minority groups to achieve access to markets, despite the widespread discrimination they face. When, for example, black rhythm-and-blues musicians were turned down by the major record companies, they marketed through independent labels such as Chess and Motown. When radio stations hesitated to play R&B, musicians got their product advertised through jukeboxes. Chuck Berry’s record company used payola—paying disc jockeys to play new records—to promote his first hit, “Maybellene.” Interestingly, although a House committee attacked the practice as scandalous, payola was not illegal until Congress outlawed it after its famous 1959 hearings. Cowen notes that the committee ignored the use of payola to promote classical music, pretty much ignored Dick Clark’s use of payola to promote white music, and mainly attacked “black” payola.

Capitalism has also helped women authors. A few centuries ago, when the high cost of books made it hard for authors to survive by selling their books to readers, men received nearly all the patronage support. But when writers competed for readers rather than for favors, men’s advantage was nil. Privately run, for-profit circulating libraries, which did for books what Blockbuster now does for videos, ordered novels for a largely female readership; they were women authors’ biggest market. That’s how Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bronte flourished. By the nineteenth century, half of the published English novelists were female.

The increasing wealth from capitalism also made it easier for artists, painters, and musicians to make a living at their craft, without having to depend on a king or other aristocratic patron. Early in his career, for example, the composer Franz Joseph Haydn was in a long-term contract with Austrian prince Esterhazy. Haydn was required to wear white stockings and powdered hair and could not travel without his employer’s approval. He also composed many musical pieces for the baryton, an awkward version of the viola, simply because the prince played that instrument. But Haydn renegotiated his contract and started selling his music, achieving financial security equivalent to that of a millionaire today. When Nicolaus II, son of the earlier Esterhazy, criticized Haydn’s conducting, Haydn replied, “Your Highness, that is my business.”

What about the idea that culture starves because artists starve? Again, widespread prosperity has made that less and less true. More than 250 years ago, J. S. Bach made an annual income that would translate into $70,000 a year today. At its worst, Mozart’s income was three times greater than that of the head doctor at a Vienna hospital, and whatever financial hardship he suffered was due more to his profligate spending than his lack of earning. Nor were many of these artists shy about making money. Mozart wrote: “Believe me, my sole purpose is to make as much money as possible; for after good health it is the best thing to have.”

Of course, it’s true that even nowadays artists must work at other jobs to finance their art. U.S. poet Wallace Stevens worked full time in the insurance industry but also published a lot of poetry. “He was a very imaginative claims man,” noted one of Stevens’s colleagues. Even many moderately successful painters, musicians, and writers make their living from their art.

Many cultural pessimists, people who think the culture is going downhill, make a simple statistical error. If there were ten good songs a year for the last forty years, and if there are ten good ones this year, then this year is as good as any other. But people make the mistake of comparing all of this year’s songs to the best of the last forty years. Of course, this year comes up short but so would, say, 1969 compared to all other years between 1960 and today. So next time you find yourself rejecting new songs, books, or paintings, remember this: Whereas everyone agrees that William Shakespeare’s work is high culture, critics at the time considered him “lowbrow.” We have Shakespeare’s plays today because they were in popular demand in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare and so many other famous artists thrived because their products were popular in the free market.