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The Flourishing of Libertarian Literary Writing

July 15, 2014 in Economics

By Matt McCaffrey

Although libertarians and Austrian economists have been interested for a long time in the relationship between art and liberty, there’s been relatively little effort to develop a distinctly liberty- or market-oriented form of literary theory; critical theory is a playground for myriad “isms,” but libertarianism isn’t often counted among them. Fortunately, this situation is beginning to change, as there’s a lot of exciting work being done in the field of literary studies, which isn’t usually known for its sound economics or liberal political philosophy.

Much of the creative energy behind this new research can be attributed to Paul Cantor, who has devoted an impressive career to exploring the relation between markets, art, and popular culture. If you want an overview of the topic, you can listen to Cantor’s fascinating lecture series from 2006 on Commerce and Culture. Especially important is the book he edited with Stephen Cox, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which helped lay the foundations of a libertarian literary criticism.

There are many other writers who are pushing the boundaries as well, especially those at the Austrian Economics and Literature blog. To name only one contributor, Sarah Skwire frequently covers neglected classics like the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, along with unfairly-maligned works like Thoreau’s Walden.

For now though I want to discuss two recent additions to the growing literature. The first is a new book by Allen Mendenhall, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism. The book seeks to expand the work done by Cantor and others in developing a new approach to criticism. Jo Ann Cavallo writes in her review:

Not since the appearance of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) has a new literary approach invited us to read texts from a vantage point that jolts us into recognition of deep-seated ideological undercurrents that had previously remained unnoticed, or were simply passed over in silence. Yet whereas Said alerted readers to a literary misrepresentation of “the Orient” implicitly supporting European colonialism in the early modern and modern periods, libertarian literary criticism offers a more sweeping analysis of political power structures, aimed at understanding literature and society in any time period and at any point on the globe.

Power relations are immensely important in literary criticism, and because of its potentially wide scope, a libertarian analysis of power can deliver more insight than many other critical theories. The hope …read more


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