The Economist Versus the Artist
I have, for some time, had a considerable interest in economics while, at the same time, having a great antipathy to the ideas of many economists. It is partly that one of the most fundamental ideas of economics – that of the ‘rational’ and ‘self-interested’ man, is so obviously at odds- both intuitively and empirically – with what we know of humans and human psychology. But mainly it is that economists- as do we all- act in ways that reflect their beliefs about themselves and the world. Thus we have all kinds of theories and assumptions coming out of the economic world which tend to dismiss things and people who do not have any obvious or immediate monetary value as worthless. Along with that seems to go a frequent ignorance of all other fields but their own. I could give examples of this kind of thinking even among those whose economic ideas I generally respect. However as it happens an excellent example presents among those that I find bizarre and repugnant. I give you, therefore, Ludwig von Mises, one of the so-called ‘Austrian School’ on the subject of artists and writers:
“The vain arrogance of the literati and Bohemian artists dismisses the activities of the businessmen as unintellectual moneymaking. The truth is that the entrepreneurs and promoters display more intellectual faculties and intuition than the average writer and painter. The inferiority of many self-styled intellectuals manifests itself precisely in the fact that they fail to recognize what capacity and reasoning power are required to operate successfully a business enterprise.
The emergence of a numerous class of such frivolous intellectuals is one of the least welcome phenomena of the age of modern capitalism. Their obtrusive stir repels discriminating people. They are a nuisance. It would not directly harm anybody if something would be done to curb their bustle or, even better, to wipe out entirely their cliques and coteries.”
Let’s see… von Mises lived from 1881-1973. Here are a few of the ‘literati and Bohemian artists’ active in that time whose ‘bustle’ he would have like to have seen curbed, if not ‘wiped out entirely’: Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, W.H. Auden, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Jorge Luis Borges, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Toyen, George Braque… Just from his native Austria alone in that time we have a whole host of amazing artists and writers- Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele among the artists, Stefan Zweig, Max Brod among the writers.
On the business side, which he admired so much, we have the robber barons, and the adherents of the lovely theory of ‘Social Darwinism’, the heads of copper companies, who tunneled under the streets of towns they controlled, causing their collapse, who hired the hit men to murder labor leaders, the scions of families who created enormous fortunes through monopolies and collusion, all leading up to the world wide financial collapse called the Great Depression. Of course Mises refused to believe that criminality of this sort had anything to do with the collapse. He was himself a wealthy aristocrat (though the family’s Jewish origin forced him to flee during World War II) with a characteristic lack of empathy for those of lesser origins.
Yes, he was right to hate Communism. But only a fool believes that the proper way to combat a horrible idea is to run to embrace its opposite extreme.
I take some satisfaction in knowing that bad ideas, while highly infectious and fatal to many until they have run their course never have any real staying power. Five hundred years from now the chances of von Mises being known and remembered for his work- either with love or hatred – are next to none. But as long as we are still around as a species I know that there will be people to look with awe and delight on Chagall’s windows, or lose themselves in Borges’ word labyrinths.
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I wrote this last March. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it then… I think I was still suffering from a bleak fatalism that convinced me, in spite of myself, that rapacious financial interests were destined to take our world and all its soaring art- straight off the edge into a slow, painful disintegration of everything worthwhile- including, ultimately, life itself. This still seems all too possible, but how differently things appear after the Arab Spring, the Spanish summer, and an America now at least partially Occupied with considerably more interesting and hopeful ideas than I have heard expressed in a very long time.