Book Review: Paul Cantor & Stephen Cox (eds.), “Literature and the Economics of Liberty”

It has often been remarked that if Marxism is still dominant somewhere, it must surely be in cultural studies and in literary criticism, especially in academia. For whatever historical contingencies have made it so, it is undeniable that, at least within the Anglosphere, these disciplines have proven particularly pervasively and stubbornly Marxist in their approach since that body of thought was introduced within them. While the methods have been very divergent, between cultural materialism and the New Criticism, and by no means all of the scholars in these fields have been Marxists, it seems that Marxism left a bigger and more lasting stamp on them than on any other. One may wonder what Marx would have made of this – while he was fond of literature and he and his family often discussed novels, poetry, and theatre, surely he would have found the scientific conquest of history and what is now called economics more important. However that may be, one interesting product of this influence of Marxism has been the school of literary criticism interested in ‘economics and literature’ – in a broad sense, both the application of economic ideas to the study of literature or its production as well as the reflection of such ideas in the content of the literary works themselves. This, too, has often been Marxist in its approach, or at least socialist in its sympathies.

For this reason, it is interesting to see something quite rare: a work of literary criticism, explicitly with an economic mode of interpretation, written from the political-economic right. It is rare enough to have economists who read anything, as is easily revealed by the profound lack of humane imagination that prevails in the charmed circles of neoclassical economics disputes (as for example Philip Mirowski has observed). It may be for this reason that such a book has been written by a series of economically informed literary critics: all but one of the contributors to Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s volume, Literature and the Economics of Liberty, are professors of English lit. It also seems suitable that they are not, in fact, writing from a neoclassical point of view, but explicitly with the purpose of promoting the Austrian School of economics in and through their analysis of literature. This school distinguishes itself in several respects from neoclassical economics, and is properly considered heterodox: mainly because, while it is even much more strongly free trade in orientation, its epistemology and methods are vastly different. It rejects modelling, econometrics, and quantification as the guiding principles of economic theory, and rejects equilibrium ideas, preferring instead to understand markets as inherent results of human activity, naturally created heuristics for the discovery of information under conditions of uncertainty. It sustains such an approach through some strong axiomatic notions of human nature, and much of the Austrian School literature is a working out of the philosophical consequences of this view of human nature: the Smithian person – with the natural tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ – writ large. All the accoutrements of modern capitalism are merely the result of letting this natural habitus of humanity do its thing, and therefore the more free the markets, the more free the people. Continue reading “Book Review: Paul Cantor & Stephen Cox (eds.), “Literature and the Economics of Liberty””