My friend James Gill has been grilling me, recently, interviewing me, challenging me from a leftist/centrist-statist perspective (which he channels with alarming ease) to defend the main points of a free society, as conceived by libertarians in general and me, Your Humble LocoFoco, in particular. He has been recording these interviews for purposes I’m not at all sure of. We have a few projects in mind. Perhaps something will come of them. Perhaps nothing will.
In any case, I’m now used to the modern dispute format: challenge, defense; challenge, defense; request for clarification, explanation; challenge, defense. A relentless cycle, forcing targets to always be thinking of a defense, rarely to jump track and pursue open-ended inquiry. It’s a slightly unsettling experience, especially since I tend to pursue inquiry more readily than this sort of conclusions-based rhetoric.
I was reminded of this while reading B.K. Marcus in The Libertarian Standard and The Freeman.
The former venue introduces a piece he wrote for the latter, but it is the former that seemed so familiar, since I have been doing so much of its kind of argumentation lately. That is, apologetics. Asking his title question, “Does capitalism make us dumb?,” Marcus starts off laying the ground:
[A]nti-capitalists contend that the market fosters whatever has the broadest appeal, even when the lowest common denominator indulges our basest appetites.
Defenders of freedom and markets tend to fall back on one of two strategies: either explaining why capitalism’s apparent vice is really a virtue (would we really prefer a system in which a self-selected elite got to plan the supply independent of demand?), or championing the products impugned by capitalism’s critics.
Ludwig von Mises took the first position. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he defended the popularity of detective stories not because of any inherent virtue in the genre but because murder mysteries were what the reading public wanted, whether or not the literati approved of their preferences.
Attempts at the second approach include compelling defenses of car culture, panegyrics to the Twinkie, even praise for shoddy products.
Some targets of disparagement, however, deserve a third approach.
And what is this third approach? Marcus is out to defend private-market television from elitist critics, particularly one of the more annoying of this industry’s ubiquitous practices, the laugh track, and he uses a pretty standard technique:
The third approach is to question the premise. Is the laugh track really a product of the market, or did it dominate TV comedies for decades because of government regulation of broadcast media?
In “Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track?” I act as defense attorney in the case of The People versus Capitalism, pleading not guilty in the case of the laugh track.
Marcus is right. You can blame “capitalism” all you like, but you cannot blame free markets. One of the essential elements of free markets is competition, especially in the form of freedom of entry. For a long time in America, three big businesses were kept big with government-provided barriers to entry. But then technology swooped in to do an end-run around the wall of protection (licensing) that for so long surrounded ABC, CBS, and NBC: cable channels and satellite broadcast, for the last 30 years, and the Internet more recently. These have proved quite effective in opening up a vast realm of aesthetic practice, and have even forced a retreat of the laugh track on the major networks. Marcus ably and concisely explains the how and the why, in his Freeman piece.
As Marcus admits, he covers a lot of ground without going into great detail, or extensive history. He misses network attempts to abandon the laugh track earlier, in such late-’80s “dramedies” as The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. He does not mention the highbrow/middlebrow “PBS” network, which was supported by government, no doubt because its influence on the development of actual aesthetic trends was remarkably scant.
It really did take substantial competition — the proliferation of channels and “networks” on cable and satellite — to bring diversity and new aesthetic life into a now-old medium, “television.” This is the Golden Age of TV right now, and it’s not because government had a program and a budget to make TV better. It’s because government was made largely irrelevant, and competition allowed to flourish.
This forced major players to innovate, and allowed “minor players” to meet demands that previously had been mostly ignored in the rush to serve a vast but protected market. Consumers learned, in the process, too. Some of them even grew up. (This sort of supply-and-demand learning and vibrancy is precisely what we should want in industries such as medicine, but pseudo-progressives and centrist-statists won’t let that happen, since they are addicted to unrealistic assumptions about markets and wildly idiotic idealizations of governments.) The great enemy is monopoly, particularly government-created monopoly.
The “government-created” is important, because technically we rarely see pure monopolies outside of government, but we do see oligopolies behaving in manners that we fear from monopolies, and oligopolies are common wherever governments restrict markets. And that’s all over the place. (If there is government licensing, there’s probably some inefficient, counter-productive/mal-distributive oligopoly as its chief product.)
There still exists a lot of lowbrow material on TV. Of course. Because that’s what lowbrow people want. Lowbrow material is perfect for not very bright people, and half of TV viewers are below average in IQ.
Elitist pseudo-progressive critics will no doubt echo the puritanical condemnations of yore, arguing that the hordes of not very bright people shouldn’t be allowed to gain pleasure from TV in lowbrow fashion, but that’s just not a very morally strong case. Indeed, the idea that markets should serve people, including people different from, ahem, ourselves, is still the best defense of markets.
And the offensiveness of elitist pseudo-progressive criticism is the best reason to dismiss such critics out of hand. In some cases, one would think we wouldn’t need a special apologetic strategy. The words of the critics are, themselves, self-destructive. Their arguments self-destruct as they speak them.
And for the most part they stand, in contemporary culture — outside their beloved Halls of Coercion (government) — muted. As if from a remote control. We don’t really need to hear more from them. They’re simply belligerent, ill-mannered, and wrong.