The Polls and the Polis

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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9 Responses

  1. Avatar 62across
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    says:

    Rufus –

    Thank you for this post.

    I’ve been thinking along these same lines ever since reading Jason’s “Before Resorting to Markets” article of a few weeks back. In his post, he states “We need markets because we need to them to solve a very difficult problem, the problem of gathering up widely distributed, paper-thin, ever-changing knowledge about what people want and need.” At the time, you brought up the issue with markets and education, while North raised the commons. My thoughts went to the Arts.

    As you state so well, the markets can provide a measure of Need, but only in the material sense. For emotional and spiritual needs, which I would argue are nearly as important to quality of life, the market does a lousy job assigning value. I know I’ll get no agreement here that this makes a case for greater government subsidies for the Arts, but the push for more market driven answers for everything will leave us poorer and less free in this regard.Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to 62across
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      says:

      I don’t know what to do about the arts. In France, I was totally blown away by the quality of arts/cultural programs on the main television stations, which are, bien sûr, state-funded. It was the same with movies, in which there are small cinemas everywhere that get state support for showing French movies. To a large extent, culture- true culture- thrives there because it’s a large part of the state-funded media. Even something like the short five-minute segments they do on important painters in history contributes to a living conversation.

      But, when the state pays for art, the artist is opened up for attacks by politicians. We occasionally will get that here, in Canada- David Cronenberg is a popular target from time to time because he takes state grants to make movies like “The Parasite Murders”- that was a big controversy. After a (decent, not great) Canadian movie came out entitled “Young People Fucking”, the politicians started demanding artists pay back funds if the state takes offense. Given that Canada already has abhorrent speech laws, you can see the dangers attached to arts funding. The other issue we have here, that particularly irks me, is that Canada gives funds to independent films, but our theatre chains are one or two huge monopolies that I think are US owned. What this means is we help pay for Canadian movies that never play where we live, nor are available at our local video store. One might imagine the CBC would show them- no such luck.

      Anyway, the US is unique in that so very much of its culture is produced by corporations. This means some very great entertainment- the French could never make a film like Star Wars- but it also means that accountants call the shots.Report

  2. Avatar James Vonder Haar
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    says:

    I can’t say that I find the defense of the thesis of this post persuasive. What makes you think that the market only reflects delight, or that people are not willing to pay for whatever they find valuable?

    I attend St. John’s College, a small liberal arts school, at considerable cost to both myself and my family. The degree is not very useful for finding gainful employment (though it is well regarded in some graduate programs). I found myself in pretty fortunate economic circumstances, and decided to use it to purchase something of real importance to me, the development of my mind and the ability to consider myself to have at least a grounding in the most important works of western civilization. I can assure you that delight is not the first term that comes to mind when considering my experience struggling through the Critique of Pure Reason or deriving Maxwell’s equations.

    This is, at bottom, an economic transaction, obeying no different laws than another person’s decision to see Transformers 2. I was a rational actor with unlimited wants and limited resources, and used those resources to purchase something short on delight but long on the satisfaction of overcoming intellectual challenges and the wonder of becoming a self-actualized human being. The market reflects values other than delight, QED. The wonderful thing about the market is precisely that it is agnostic as to the values it serves. Sure, this means that many people will simply pursue delight, but it also means that, should people consider it valuable, it will also be able to provide education for its own sake, the intense spiritual experience a pilgrimage to the holy land or the Vatican would offer, or the thoughtful transport of listening to a particularly well done symphony.

    I am certain that if you yourself looked over your economic acts, not simply what the culture would narrowly define as acts of commerce or consumption but any action in which money exchanged hands, you would see that they very often reflected your values, and most often they did not reflect a preoccupation with delight.

    If products that provide delight are primarily what succeeds in the market, the only rational conclusion is that actors in the market value delight. It has ever been thus. To the extent that this is problematic, the problem rests with the values of the majority of Americans, not the mechanism which is used to express those values.

    As it happens, I’m of the opinion that it is not problematic, at least not on a political level. I realize that reading Aristotle for four years of life is not going to lead most people to the fulfillment that it’s lead me to, and I’m not inclined to push that choice on my fellow citizens. As a good liberal, I’m perfectly fine with the notion that citizens within a nation can disagree with the notion of a good life and that I am unjust to expect any succor from the state in imposing my view of it on others.

    And that is why the liberal political order and markets are natural allies; the detente of imposing the good life through political means is reflected in the agnosticism of the market towards what the good life entails . It’s also why elitist attacks on the market such as the above betray a profoundly illiberal bent that can only undermine the only stable basis we have ever found for a pluralistic society.Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to James Vonder Haar
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      says:

      This is a very persuasive and eloquent response. It’s also a misreading of what I wrote. And I think it’s weirdly moralistic. In the first place, this post is not an attack on the market. But, even if it were, it’s hard to understand why that, in your opinion, is equivalent to an attack on democratic pluralism. There are plenty of human endeavors in civic and cultural life that are rooted in neither the state nor the market, so it’s not as if we must simply choose one at the expense of the other.

      I’m willing to admit that I’m pretty unclear here. And that maybe the thesis just doesn’t work. And, yes, so the market reflects values other than delight. But, your example of taking a course on Kant at St. John’s College makes my point pretty well. Which, for the record, is that cultural and civic institutions should be guided by a higher and more complete vision of their mission than simply seeing their functioning in economic terms. Because, absolutely, the market is agnostic to value. That’s why the market has to be supplemented by other explanations of human behavior, which must remain strong.

      To wit: Because the market lacks a vision of the good life, we must maintain a vision of the good life independent of and beyond market metrics, so that the market isn’t the sole decider of our civic and cultural endeavors. That has nothing to do whatsoever with either dismantling the market or imposing our vision of the good life on others via the state, which are totally unfair inferences to make. I’m not even secretly thinking those things.

      The reason that St. John’s offers a course on Kant isn’t simply because they see it as a “product” and you as a “consumer” and the market says it’s a popular product. Sure, at base, it’s a market transaction. But that’s not all it is, and that’s not solely how its understood. Instead, St. John’s, from my understanding, has a coherent and holistic vision of what education is and the role of education in the formation of a good life. And it sounds like you do as well.

      As an undergraduate, I went to a college that also had a lasting and coherent vision of the value of education in the formation of a good life. They didn’t judge the value of courses based solely on market metrics. Therefore, if their Kant course only had four students enrolled this year, they didn’t see that as a slight against the course. It is still a worthwhile course to offer.

      At the university where I’m working on my PhD, three students would mean they get rid of the Kant class, because to them, the market has “revealed” that the course is nearly worthless. And this is because they have no vision of the value of education outside of market economics and so they subordinate their institutional decisions solely to “letting the market decide”. This is the only way they can judge the “success” or “failure” of their courses. This is to the detriment of the education they offer.

      But civic and cultural institutions have many different sorts of values that cannot be fully comprehended by the market. A university offering a course on, say, Aristotle is worthwhile, even if ten times as many students are taking “Porn and Society”. Therefore, and I apparently did not say this, these institutions work best when they are guided by a complete and higher vision of what those other values are and resist the urge to understand their mission in solely economic terms.

      You say that, if something truly valuable doesn’t do well in the market, that’s a reflection of the culture, not of the market. But, again, I’m not attacking the market. What I’m attacking is seeing the market as the sole reflector of value, so that a worthwhile cultural item failing in the market is seen as a complete judgment of the value of that item. Something like “Arthur Schnitzler is out of print, so his books must be worthless”. None of us would agree to that because none of us believe that the market is the only judge of the value of literature. We don’t just “let the market decide”- we have other criteria of worth. The market doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.

      The market might well judge you going to see Transformers II as being, at bottom an economic transaction no different than you taking a course on Kant, but I find it hard to believe that you see the two experiences as having an equal value in your own life. Therefore, you likely judge these experiences using other criteria. Yes, I see taking a Kant class as a more valuable personal experience than seeing Transformers II, which you’re free to call “elitist” if you think the two are equivalent and interchangeable personal experiences. But, if they’re not and the market sees them as being equivalent, then we have to have other ways of judging those experiences beyond mere market metrics so that Kant is not subject solely to the whims of the market.

      Does this mean that cultural and civic institutions don’t interact with the market? No, of course not. It means that they don’t let the market be the sole arbiter of how they function. The market is agnostic to value, which is why other values have to inform how we understand human behavior.

      So, while I’ll acknowledge that the market reflects experiences beyond delight, you should understand that this is not really an attack on the market at all, simply a call to supplement the information provided by the market by other non-market visions of the good life. And the stuff about using the succor of the state to impose a vision of a good life is a really unfair way of reading into what I wrote.Report

      • Avatar James Vonder Haar in reply to Rufus
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        says:

        You are correct that I was being unfair, and I would like to tender my apology. While I think this concern that the market fails to capture some highly important value is an underpinning of much statist sentiment, it of course does not imply such sentiment, any moreso than a concern for social justice implies communism (thanks, Glenn Beck). I ought to remember, in any case, that I am swimming in psuedo-libertarian waters and, unlike in most of contemporary discourse, an author passionately decrying a problem does not imply necessary state intervention. Mea culpa.

        I am starting to think that our difference is one of framework, and while we’d look at them in different terms, our advice to institutions would be pretty similar. If the thrust is that, “these institutions work best when they are guided by a complete and higher vision of what those other values are,” I would substantially agree, but would frame it in the economic terms that you decry. To put it in less lofty terms than it deserves, a university is a brand. To put it in the terms that it deserves, a university is an ideal that students are willing to pay for. While replacing Kant with more Platonic dialogues might make for a more delightful course of study (note that St. John’s has no electives or majors; we all take the same classes), in the short term, in the long term I have to imagine that an institution that was willing to make such tradeoffs would soon lose the confidence of myself and my fellow students, and would undermine our reason for being there. I have to imagine that an institution that would put our short-term comfort above our development as thinkers would soon go out of business, or that, in any case, it might survive alongside institutions that had other priorities.

        If your goal is to fight for the soul of higher education, I wish you the very best of luck. But I do believe that the values of an institution are reflected in their market value, inasmuch as those values are a prime component of why people decide to back those institutions with their dollars.

        Your point that economic value is not the end all of human endeavors in well taken, but even still I can’t resist the urge of passing this through an economic framework. Offering Kant courses despite their unpopularity with students is not valuable simply because it belies a philosophy that is more likely to engender the confidence and trust of the student populace, and thus make them more likely to continue spending their money there. It’s also because the integrity of an educator and of an educational institution has value unto itself, regardless of its pecuniary rewards. While it may not do the sentiment justice, I am inclined to view such values as, once more, something that economic forces act upon, and that educators who continue to live up to their high standards are trading off the lesser good of increased monetary compensation for the higher good of living up to their values. But on the substance of the situation, I think we largely agree.Report

        • Avatar Rufus in reply to James Vonder Haar
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          says:

          Ah, don’t worry about it. I agree that we’re basically thinking along the same lines.

          To be honest, my thoughts tend to be Conservative/Libertarian/Liberal. Conservative in that I believe civil society needs to have figures who embody cultural authority and who can transmit an enduring vision of a good life, as well as texts and traditions that add meaning to life. As you put it, the integrity of these intellectual people and institutions has to demonstrate value in itself. But, like you’ve also suggested, in this, they act as advertisements for things like Kant. I’m also Libertarian in the sense that I recognize that the market is the best mechanism for delivering goods and services in human history and, more importantly, because I recognize that laws limiting the market usually also limit individual choice and thus freedom. If the state says I can’t buy cigarettes, I can’t make the choice to not smoke. I’m Liberal to the extent that I recognize that social inequality is deleterious to civil society and tends to undercut a culture’s dynamism. Therefore, I think that communities need to work collectively to try to give their members the approximation of a fair shot in life. I don’t think this need be a government undertaking.

          I still can’t remember who, but someone here recently commented that it’s a mistake to see libertarians as only talking about the state and the market because they want to strengthen a third thing, namely civil society, in order to empower the individual to make free choices without being hemmed in by the state or the market. I might be mischaracterizing there, but that was the gist of it.

          In terms of a university, while it engages with both the state and the market, if it doesn’t maintain a vision of the university that is somewhat separate from and higher than both, it loses its inherent value by being entirely too subject to these outside forces. We can easily imagine a state university, for example, in which politicians decide who can teach courses, or mandate a course on “The Current Administration and its Brilliance”, and see how that would degrade the open intellectual character of the university.

          What you talk about with students losing confidence in the university as a brand, and as an ideal, is what I see at the university I’m currently attending. They do not advertise, to their students, an ideal of education in the formation of a good life. Instead, we get constant appeals via email for our input as customers. “What would you like the new library to have? Tell us now!” As some point, you want them to actually know what a library is and not have to ask the students! The admins see it as being “receptive” to the wishes of students, but the students indeed lose confidence in the university; the complaint I often hear from undergrads is, “This place just cares about getting our money!”

          Anyway, I do agree that we’re getting at the same points here.Report

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