Several leaders in the pro-capitalism camp have issued calls to embrace the moral argument for free markets. Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, counsels advocates of capitalism to retain our focus on the regressive effects of government intervention on the poor. Fred Smith, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, hopes to help salvage the reputations of businesspeople by disputing the bad rap with which they’ve been unfairly saddled and proudly pointing to the wealth that they create as a moral good in itself. John Mackey is one leader in this effort that has both walked the walk and talked the talk: as the CEO of Whole Foods, Mackey practiced the precise brand of “conscious capitalism” that he now promotes for other businesses to adopt. While these men’s efforts are admirable, and perhaps long overdue, I fear that the three of them unfortunately have got their work cut out for them.
The largest obstacle that faces this endeavor is the simple fact that it is very difficult to reverse an established narrative, particularly when it is accompanied by several centuries’ worth of literary, musical, and journalistic cultural reinforcement. This is especially concerning if you believe, as I do, that the arts have a profound effect on influencing people’s moral dispositions and ultimately their worldviews. The “nefarious executive” trope is so established within the arts that it is doubtful that it will quickly fade silently into the past. If we are to adequately challenge this prevailing “commerce as a questionably-necessary evil” narrative, it makes sense to take stock of how our cultural narratives became so skewed in the first place.
Ludwig von Mises, similarly assessing the cultural situation of his time, was intrigued by the overwhelming tendency for members of the “creative class” to adopt anti-capitalistic worldviews in their lives and crafts. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Mises offers one explanation for this trend: artists, especially good ones, face constant frustration in a market that is notoriously fraught with that destructive combination of conspicuous consumption and poor taste. Creative geniuses—and those who incorrectly fancy themselves to be among this small group—become disheartened and depressed by society’s inability to recognize and adequately compensate them for their contributions to human expression. They eventually come to recoil at the system that produces this great injustice and those who benefit from it: the so-called business class. This skepticism towards capitalism then spills from the anxious dispositions of the creative class into the works of art that are consumed by the public and integrated into our cultural fiber.
It is not hard for someone who appreciates beauty and innovation to empathize with the plight of the authentic creator; it is, indeed, a tragedy that some of the best artists were initially mocked and rejected for their pioneering styles while peacocking frauds garnered accolades and fortunes from their works of a fraction of the quality of the scorned greats’. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the handful of type II errors in artistic appreciation that have occurred, in most cases, great artists have found success within their lifetimes, and mass culture expands both the quantity and diversity of commercially-viable forms of expression. Recognizing this, it could be the case that the anti-capitalistic mentality is not radically more pronounced within the creative class than in other professions. Rather, this group’s outsized influence in shaping culture simply allows them to air their grievances with the normal shortcomings of life to a broader audience than most other people.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that not all members of the contemporary creative class share their predecessors’ moral aversions to capitalism (and, in fact, we may overestimate the progressive tendencies of the humanities’ masters). What’s more, these inspired souls are finding ways to imbue their works with the values that embody a liberal society and drive their efforts. For one example, we can look at the boom in well-produced short films that make the moral and consequential cases for capitalism in emotional and entertaining ways. The Moving Pictures Institute, already established by their documentaries on subjects that relate to economic freedom—like the problems with eminent domain and our centralized public school system—has recently started producing short videos that range from a gorgeous adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic short story “Harrison Bergeron” to a youthful pop music video that alerts the hipster set to the perils of artificially low interest rates. Another scrappy outfit, Emergent Order, made quite a splash with their humorous rap battles starring the modern doppelgängers of larger-than-life economists John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek. In fact, it is becoming difficult to find a free market organization that is not experimenting with creating emotional and entertaining videos to make the moral case for their vision of a free society.
What is remarkable about these efforts is not that the content is excellent (which it is), but that enough high-skilled right-brainers—a sizable contingency of writers, producers, editors, singers, and designers—are drawn to these projects to begin with. Given the traditional ideological hegemony that is unofficially shared by the creative class, these bourgeois bohemians risk alienation from their peers in addition to the burdens of simultaneously understanding and learning to navigate the market forces that invoke the antipathy of their jaded cohort. A cynic might conclude that these artists are simply going where the money is, but I don’t think this is a sufficient explanation. The videos that have been produced thus far have been captivating precisely because of the sincerity and accuracy of their messages, a quality that is generally difficult to produce when one is merely clocking in. Contra Mises, it could be that not all artists fall prey to the short-sighted despair that follows a disappointing opening night or release. For some of them, the uncontrolled but orderly beauty of free exchange and association is their muse. Whatever the motivating force, these “creators for capitalism” are making Brooks, Smith, and Mackey’s missions considerably more within reach.