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.
I first heard of Steven Johnson’s 2006 book The Ghost Map from a George Will piece called “Survival of the Sudsiest.” The book’s full title is The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Will describes it as “a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water.”
In the “The Books of Summer” (Liberty, July 2007), Bruce Ramsey also recommends it:
It tells the tale of the deadly outbreak of cholera in London in 1854, and how two men, a doctor and a preacher, proved how it was spread.… In parallel to the detective story is a revolting description of London in the early industrial age. The industrial revolution made London the earth’s largest city with the earth’s largest waste problem. Libertarians will note that market mechanisms did arise to handle this, though they were, in the author’s estimation, not so good. They will note that the first solution imposed by government made matters worse — but that the second one was better. The book also shows how the provision of sewers and a clean water supply ended cholera epidemics by the last quarter of the 19th century.
I’m finally getting around to reading The Ghost Map, and while it is compelling and enjoyable from the first page, it is also an excellent example of why it helps to have some economic literacy to be able to read popular history critically.
Both Johnson’s masterly prose and his questionable economics are evident from the first. Here’s his opening:
As many of my readers know, I often lecture and speak and give podcast or radio interviews on various libertarian topics and issues, such as intellectual property (IP), anarcho-libertarians, Austrian law and economic, contract theory, rights and punishment theory, and so on. I also blog and comment regularly on such matters in various blogs (primarily The Libertarian Standard, on general libertarian matters, and C4SIF, on IP-related matters), Facebook, and so on—often posting my take on a given issue in response to a question emailed to me or posted online.
This month I am launching a new podcast, Kinsella on Liberty. I expect to post episodes once or twice a week. The podcast will include new episodes covering answers to questions emailed to me (feel free to ask me to address any issue of libertarian theory or application) as well as interviews or discussions I conduct with other libertarians. I’ll also include in the feed any new speeches or interviews of mine that appear on other podcasts or fora, as well as older speeches, interviews, and audio versions of my articles, which are collected for now on my media page). Audio and slides for several of my Mises Academy courses may also be found on my media page, and will also be included in the podcast feed later this year. Feel free to Subscribe in iTunes or Follow with RSS, and spread the word to your libertarian friends. I welcome questions for possible coverage in the podcast, as well as any criticism, suggestions for improvement, or other feedback. My general approach to libertarian matters is Austrian, anarchist, and propertarian, influenced heavily by the thought of Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. My writing can be found in articles here and blog posts at The Libertarian Standard and C4SIF, such as:
I was a guest on Jeff Berwick’s Anarchast (ep. 51, 36 min), released today. We discussed anarchy and how such a society might be reached; the basis and origin of law and property rights and its relationship to libertarian principles, and implications for legislation versus law and the legitimacy of intellectual property; also, utilitarianism, legal positivism, scientism, and logical positivism. Description from the Anarchist site below; MP3 download. For more background on IP, see the C4SIF Resources page; on legislation vs. private law, see The (State’s) Corruption of (Private) Law.
Anarchast Ep. 51 with Stephan Kinsella
Jeff Berwick in Acapulco, Mexico, talks with Stephan Kinsella in Houston, Texas