Idolatry in a Free Society
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve spent several days reflecting on my chairman’s reaction to public grief over Michael Jackson’s death:
I, for one, am no more touched by Mr. Jackson’s death
than I am by the death of any of the thousands of other Americans who
died last week, all of whom – like Mr. Jackson – are strangers to me
and to the vast majority of people now so self-indulgently and
flamboyantly grieving for a man they never met.
proclivity to mass hysteria causes me to want government to have as
little power as possible. I neither can nor wish to stop other persons
from doing with their lives as they wish. But I also damn sure despise
the fact that, through their votes, so many persons prone to such
childish sentiments and displays have a say in how I lead my life.
I agree with Don Boudreaux’s basic point: If people get hysterical about a man they never met, it seems dangerous to put real power in their hands. At the same time, though, it’s worth pointing out that this particular manifestation of “mass hysteria” is not only understandable, but benign.
Understandable: Michael Jackson’s music really did touch the lives of millions of people. Sure, they didn’t personally know him, but who doesn’t feel a connection to one impressive stranger or another? I never met Julian Simon, but I feel his loss. The story of the architect of Hitler’s failed assassination brings tears to my eyes. I’d be ever-so-happy for Emily Whitehurst if she became a superstar. What’s so bad about these feelings-at-a-distance?
Benign: If people have the kinds of emotional needs that Don criticizes, what is the best – or least bad – way to express them? They could express them in politics, with the usual awful results. They could express them in religion, with results that are at best mixed. Or they could express them by idolizing singers, movie stars, novelists, bloggers, etc. It’s hard to see the downside.
I’d actually go further: Fandom would play an important role in a free society. What role? Harmlessly dissipating the emotions that, wrongly directly, lead to dangerous hysterias. In fact, as Tyler Cowen explains in his unjustly neglected What Price Fame?, idolatry serves as a non-cash payment to the creative geniuses who give us far more than we pay them. Samuel Johnson once wisely observed that, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed
than in getting money.” I’d like to add that “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently hysterical than in grieving over a celebrity.”