Economics and Modernity
By Bryan Caplan
Before I came to GMU, I would have completely agreed with David Friedman’s economic take-down of modern culture:
Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the
history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so
ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your
reputation. You design Canberra…
I call it the theory of the rising marginal cost of originality–formed long ago when I spent a summer visiting at ANU.
explains why, to a first approximation, modern art isn’t worth looking
at, modern music isn’t worth listening to, and modern literature and
verse not worth reading. Writing a novel like one of Jane Austen’s, or
a poem like one by Donne or Kipling, only better, is hard. Easier to
deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee
that nobody else has done it better.
Of course, there might be a reason nobody else has used it.
During my first years at GMU, though, I spent many lunches arguing with Tyler Cowen about the defects of modern culture. While he never made me love Pollock or Boulez, I eventually realized that Tyler was basically right: Modern culture is awesome.
Yes, a handful of people create ugliness on purpose, and some “timeless” genres are senile or dead. However, the market constantly revives old genres and creates new ones. The top 10% of this creativity is excellent. (Yes, it’s time to plug Dexter and Big Love again). The total volume is so massive we couldn’t consume that top 10% if we tried with all our might.
Those are the facts as I see them. But how are they possible in theory? There’s something to Friedman’s search-theoretic critique of modernity. It helps explain why genres have a life cycle of creativity followed by decline. (Don’t forget, though, that from consumers’ point of view, it’s stocks of culture that matter, not flows). Friedman’s problem is that he ignores the countervailing effects of population and wealth. Lots of creative people serving a big market of rich consumers is a recipe for progress – and that is precisely what see we all around us.