Tyler Cowen on inequality and the arts.
Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.
Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.
Corey has argued that this passage displays a Nietzsche-meets-Hayek logic under which the idle rich serve (and should serve) as cultural taste-setters for the rest of us. Tyler would very likely disagree. But if he were to disagree, I think he’d have to state why it is better for culture that only the independently wealthy and their intimate dependents enjoy this kind of liberty. Cue George Scialabba, in a recent post on the history of Partisan Review.
There’s a reason why a lot of modern culture was produced by people living on a shoestring, from the New York intellectuals to all those poets and painters starving in their fabled garrets. It’s time-consuming to do something original; it requires bad manners, or at least a lack of automatic deference for received wisdom; and it helps to have an abundance of low-paid but undemanding jobs around-mailman, night watchman, librarian, clerical worker-that one can drift in and out of, as well as a few cheap urban neighborhoods where like-minded artistic riff-raff can congregate. (Russell Jacoby’s description, in The Last Intellectuals, of the ecology of the freelance intellectual has never been bettered.)
This scruffy, relaxed, undisciplined lifestyle-which rested on a political economy of full employment, free education, generous public services (including, let’s not forget, a fully funded postal service not handicapped by the current huge giveaway of practically free service to the credit-card industry), decent urban mass transit, and public subsidies for culture-is just what a business-dominated society makes it increasingly difficult to achieve, or even aspire to. Globalization, tight money, slashed government budgets, the destruction of unions: the result of all these and the rest of the corporate agenda is pervasive insecurity.
If you want to argue that Piketty (and other critics of inequality) fail to appreciate how inequality fosters the “dynamic productivity” of culture, you really need to show how culture is more dynamic under high inequality than it is under conditions of low inequality. Otherwise, your argument is beside the point (if all that you’re saying is that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while admitting that low inequality has greater payoffs, your criticism is probably not worth articulating in the first place). More precisely, you want to show that confining cultural production to a small minority of independently wealthy individuals (or those who can be supported by wealthy families or patrons) is better than allowing a larger, and much more heterogenous group of people the necessary freedom “from the immediate demands of the marketplace” to produce art and culture. Otherwise, your argument for the cultural benefits of high inequality undermines itself. If freedom from the marketplace is a good thing for culture, then, as per George’s discussion, it surely should be spread around among a wider variety of people.
[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]
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