Tyler Cowen is one of Nietzsche’s Marginal Children

22 Apr

Tyler Cowen reviews Thomas Piketty:

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.

Nietzsche’s Marginal Children:

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek developed this notion into a full-blown theory of the wealthy and the well-born as an avant-garde of taste, as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bearings. Instead of the market of consumers dictating the actions of capital, it would be capital that would determine the market of consumption…

As this reference to “future wants and desires” suggests, Hayek has much more in mind than producers responding to a pre-existing market of demand; he’s talking about men who create new markets—and not just of wants or desires, but of basic tastes and beliefs. The freedom Hayek cares most about is the freedom of those legislators of value who shape and determine our ends.

 

More interesting is how explicit and insistent Hayek is about linking the legislation of new values to the possession of vast amounts of wealth and capital, even—or especially—wealth that has been inherited. Often, says Hayek, it is only the very rich who can afford new products or tastes….

The most important contribution of great wealth, however, is that it frees its possessor from the pursuit of money so that he can pursue nonmaterial goals. Liberated from the workplace and the rat race, the “idle rich”—a phrase Hayek seeks to reclaim as a positive good—can devote themselves to patronizing the arts, subsidizing worthy causes like abolition or penal reform, founding new philanthropies and cultural institutions….

The men of capital, in other words, are best understood not as economic magnates but as cultural legislators: “However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.”

28 Responses to “Tyler Cowen is one of Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”

  1. Fact Checker April 22, 2014 at 2:14 am #

    [Locke] makes a great deal of the imperishable character of the precious metals, which, he says, are the source of money and inequality of fortune. He seems, in an abstract and academic way, to regret economic inequality, but he certainly does not think that it would be wise to take such measures as might prevent it. No doubt he was impressed, as all the men of his time were, by the gains to civilization that were due to rich men, chiefly as patrons of art and letters. The same attitude exists in modern America, where science and art are largely dependent upon the benefactions of the very rich. To some extent, civilization is furthered by social injustice. This fact is the basis of what is most respectable in conservatism.

    –Bertrand Russell

  2. billmon April 22, 2014 at 8:02 am #

    “the ‘idle rich,—a phrase Hayek seeks to reclaim as a positive good—can devote themselves to patronizing the arts, subsidizing worthy causes like abolition or penal reform, founding new philanthropies and cultural institutions…”

    Which was also an argument that Southern slaveowners used to make to justify the “peculiar institution.”

    • Phil Perspective April 22, 2014 at 10:26 am #

      Which was also an argument that Southern slaveowners used to make to justify the “peculiar institution.”

      Given where Cowen works makes him, more or less, a Koch Brothers employee, right?

      • Ellie K May 7, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

        That’s always been my understanding!

        George Mason University, Ludwig von Mises, Austrians, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, Ayn Rand, Singularity University, Less Wrong, technocrats… I have trouble remembering the difference between them. It reminds me of fringe revolutionary sects. (I hope that I won’t be told to “check my privilege” as a result of this outburst.)

      • Ellie K May 17, 2014 at 11:42 am #

        I’m sorry, that was a silly comment. I really, truly find Tyler Cowen objectionable, in so many ways, for years. He IS marginal, as a revolutionary (LOL) and certainly not in the iconoclastic, yet cheerful style, of Nietzche.

        An offering, about art and capitalism, by the truly introspective folks at New Economic Perspectives, Art, Money, Bitcoins and Damien Hirst.

  3. realthog April 22, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    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.

    And how many more great artists and writers might have left us work to treasure had they not been stuck in fields or factories, scraping a living however they could?

    • Fact Checker April 23, 2014 at 1:20 am #

      Oh, well, I must quote Bertrand Russell again:

      Whoever will observe how many of our poets have been men of private means will realize how much poetic capacity must have remained undeveloped through poverty

      • realthog April 23, 2014 at 8:24 am #

        Golly! That’s cheered up my morning. I’m clear a Betrand Russell de nos jours . . .

      • realthog April 23, 2014 at 8:24 am #

        Oops. Bertrand.

  4. jonnybutter April 22, 2014 at 9:13 am #

    Which was also an argument that Southern slaveowners used to make to justify the “peculiar institution.”

    And Greek and Roman slaveowners too, for that matter.

    And how many more great artists and writers might have left us work to treasure had they not been stuck in fields or factories, scraping a living however they could?

    Even more, how much better culture would we have as a result of the higher bar – or how would the very idea of what ‘great art’ is be changed – if more people could make art. As it is, to be an artist you have to be a.) rich, and/or b.) so crazy that you are compelled to be an obsessed drudge even though you might know that it means poverty, probable loneliness, and possible early death.

    • jmdesp April 22, 2014 at 10:56 am #

      Funnily, Gauguin was first a), and then turned to b)

    • billmon April 22, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

      “And Greek and Roman slaveowners too, for that matter.”

      Elite arguments for their social domination are as timeless as…elite social domination.

  5. Brian Leiter April 22, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    As you know, Nietzsche did not think those who would legislate new values would be those with wealth or capital, or anything remotely like that.

    • Corey Robin April 22, 2014 at 11:56 am #

      I know! I say that multiple times in my article.

      • Brian Leiter April 27, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

        Fair enough, but that important nuance is lost in this blog post!

  6. Roquentin April 22, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    Sometimes I think Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” is a more definitive anti-capitalist text that Das Kapital. For Veblen, art more or less boiled down to conspicuous consumption and the public display of waste. There is no small amount of irony in hearing this similar stance echoed in Hayek and the like, only they seem to view this as a positive thing. I say this as someone who likes art a great deal, but in my more cynical moments I have a hard time not siding with Veblen.

  7. kylejanderson April 22, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    to what extent are academics not “the idle rich”?

    • jonnybutter April 22, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

      to what extent are academics not “the idle rich”?

      to what extent are you rich if you aren’t wealthy? To what extent are you idle if you work hard? To that extent.

      For Veblen, art more or less boiled down to conspicuous consumption and the public display of waste.

      I don’t know if your assessment of what Veblen thought is correct (I haven’t read him), but if it is, it’s remarkably humorless and obtuse of him to think that. For one thing, a salient feature of good art is that it resists ‘boiling down’ at all.

      • G. Branden Robinson April 22, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

        Suggestive, then, that novelist Ayn Rand was proud of the fact that she could summarize her philosophy while standing on one foot.

        http://aynrandlexicon.com/ayn-rand-ideas/introducing-objectivism.html

      • Roquentin April 22, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

        At least you admit you haven’t read him. I’d argue that means you aren’t equipped to challenge my reading. However, since you decided to throw the gauntlet down, I’m willing to accept.

        http://www.gutenberg.org/files/833/833-h/833-h.htm#link2HCH0006

        From Chapter 3 “Conspicuous Leisure” (this just one of a great many examples:

        “As seen from the economic point of view, leisure, considered as an employment, is closely allied in kind with the life of exploit; and the achievements which characterise a life of leisure, and which remain as its decorous criteria, have much in common with the trophies of exploit. But leisure in the narrower sense, as distinct from exploit and from any ostensibly productive employment of effort on objects which are of no intrinsic use, does not commonly leave a material product. The criteria of a past performance of leisure therefore commonly take the form of “immaterial” goods. Such immaterial evidences of past leisure are quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments and a knowledge of processes and incidents which do not conduce directly to the furtherance of human life. So, for instance, in our time there is the knowledge of the dead languages and the occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of the various forms of domestic music and other household art; of the latest properties of dress, furniture, and equipage; of games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and race-horses. In all these branches of knowledge the initial motive from which their acquisition proceeded at the outset, and through which they first came into vogue, may have been something quite different from the wish to show that one’s time had not been spent in industrial employment; but unless these accomplishments had approved themselves as serviceable evidence of an unproductive expenditure of time, they would not have survived and held their place as conventional accomplishments of the leisure class.”

        I’m not saying that agree with him 100% or want to follow his argument all the way, but it’s hard not to see the point he was making….that art always contains within it conspicuous leisure and indicates that one was not engaged in productive employment when creating it. Furthermore, owning art, which serves no practical purpose, also indicates that you have lots of money to burn…hence conspicuous consumption. What’s the old saying about an art show “if you have to ask what the price is, you probably can’t afford it.”

        I say all of the above as someone with a MoMA membership.

      • Fact Checker April 23, 2014 at 2:02 am #

        It’s notable, though, how much less true that is of art today than it was in times past. After centuries of ever-more-extreme art purchases motivated by conspicuous consumption signalling games, people figured out you could make big money by predicting tomorrow’s conspicuous consumption today. Consequently, buying art is now in significant part considered a form of investment, as much a “productive” (i.e., profit-motivated) economic activity as a leisure activity.

  8. wetcasements April 23, 2014 at 2:36 am #

    Has Tyler Cowen seen La Boheme? Does he know that a good number of the artists he listed died of tuberculosis in their 30′s, penniless?

    It’s genuinely hard to tell the difference between Libertarianism and parodies of the same thing.

  9. jonnybutter April 23, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    but it’s hard not to see the point he was making….that art always contains within it conspicuous leisure and indicates that one was not engaged in productive employment when creating it.

    Reading comprehension my friend. The above is not what you said originally, and neither statement of yours is an accurate summary of the quote you cite. Notice how Veblen qualifies. If he had said (like you) ‘all art’, or ‘[all] art always..’ then you would be correct. Read it again. He qualifies. (e.g. ‘quasi-art’; ‘domestic music’, et. al.).

    Also, I didn’t quite ‘admit’ that I hadn’t read him. I said that if your reading of him is correct, which I couldn’t judge since I hadn’t read him, then what he said was foolish. I can see now that your reading of him is not reliable. I still can’t say Veblen is foolish, but the passage you quote is much more equivocal than your summaries.

    • Roquentin April 23, 2014 at 8:27 am #

      So you want to double down and just keep stubbornly insisting you were right about an author you haven’t read and still speak authoritatively about? Then throw in a few insults about my reading comprehension for good measure? I’m not sure why I even am bothering with a response as its clear what I say won’t make much difference, but my neurotic need to argue with total strangers reigns supreme…..

      • jonnybutter April 23, 2014 at 8:55 am #

        We aren’t going to argue because I don’t have time to argue. I think you misread the passage you quoted and pointed out why I thought so. If I’m wrong show me how – btw, I know perfectly well that I am wrong frequently and don’t think that state of affairs is a very big deal. I *try* not to make mistakes, but I still make them.

        In your last comment you are arguing like a lawyer – trying to get debate points. I am really interested in the status and possible (re)definition of high art on a post-capitalist view. If you have something valuable to add to that discussion, including explaining Veblen to me and everyone else, by all means do so. No sarcasm or snark intended there.

        I regret having used the inflammatory phrase ‘reading comprehension’. But if what you’re interested in is the subject at hand, I would check your reading comprehension just for your own sake. That’s what I would do because I make mistakes a lot and like to check; it’s always possible that even an asshole who I don’t like and disagree with, has something valuable to teach me. Again, I would do that for myself, not at all for the sake of the asshole.

  10. kbhattacharya May 1, 2014 at 4:15 am #

    Cowen’s citation of Cezanne is perhaps less congruent with the point that he wants to make than appears. Cezanne’s, living off the allowance that his father’s money provided him, pursued a career as a painter and carried on a marriage in secret, against his father’s will. The lengths to which Cezanne went to maintain this secret lifestyle are legendary, and well covered in biographies of the painter.

    Does Cowen intend that Cezanne’s career be an example of the kind of political/economic/social dynamic that he views as positive? Cezanne’s career of artistic creation and relentless personal dishonesty reflect rather invidiously on Cowen’s economic ethic.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Wordpress Blogs - Wordpress Blogs .NET - April 22, 2014

    […] Tyler Cowen Is One Of Nietzsche’s Marginal Children April 22nd, 2014 — “Tyler Cowen reviews Thomas Piketty: 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. Pikettys own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form […]” 12 Comments […]

  2. Washington Equitable Center for Growth | The Daily Piketty: Some More Reviews of Piketty - April 25, 2014

    […] Cowen: “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 […]

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