Does capitalism make us dumb?

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The anti-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.

One such target is the canned laughter of television comedies, which has been the object of critical censure for over half a century.

As University of Minnesota art history professor Karal Ann Marling says,

Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium, because it treats the audience as though they were sheep who need to be told when something is funny — even if, in fact, it’s not very funny.

James Parker, entertainment columnist for the Atlantic, disagrees. In fact, he laments the laugh track’s recent decline:

Silence now encases the sitcom, the lovely, corny crackle of the laugh track having vaporized into little bathetic air pockets and farts of anticlimax. Enough, I say. This burlesque of naturalism has depleted us.… Who knew irony could be so cloying?

So do we file the laugh track in the same category into which Mises put pulp fiction?

Or should we instead follow the model of the staunch defenders, and explain why the elitists are simply wrong?

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.

Postscript:

Given the limited length of a Freeman article, I had to give an extremely condensed version of the history of broadcast media and cartelization. You can find a more thorough account of that story in my 2006 article for the Journal of Libertarian Studies: “Radio Free Rothbard,” available in PDF and HTML.

1 comment… add one

  • I think among the many mistakes central planners make is the failure to see what capitalism could produce in the future and projecting their ideals onto a fixed system. Consider the number of venues now available for content creators to appeal to increasingly small niches from the lowest brow to the highest. Yes a great many large firms may choose to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but so many small firms or individuals now have the power to appeal to the highest with great specificity. The best part is no single group gets to (or needs to) decide what is best for all.

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