19th century inequality and the arts

Here is a well-written piece by Epicurean Dealmaker (ED) on the arts and economic inequality.   Another response is here from Salon, also see the pieces that ED links to, such as Henry Farrell (and more here and Matt here).  Unfortunately, ED cannot get beyond his preferred framing of the problem in terms of inequality and inequality alone.  He has “inequality on the brain.”

Here is the nub of the critique:

Cowen takes a detour to praise the cultural dynamism and productivity of 19th Century France, which he claims results from the substantial socioeconomic inequality of the period. This is a pivot too far.

ED fails to note that:

1. Much of the artistic creativity of the 19th century stemmed from its wealth creation, not from its inequality per se.  He specifies a setting where a robber baron stole from a working man, and supposes I am defending the theft by arguing it brought us some good art.  That is an imaginary creation of ED.  The very passage from me he cites refers to the virtues of wealth but does not refer to inequality.

2. For much of the latter three-quarters of the 19th century, consumption inequality appears to have declined.  Oops.

3. Many of his intemperate statements about the history of art are wrong or doubtful or exaggerated and have been answered or at least contested, including in the five books I have written on the economics of the arts, including In Praise of Commercial Culture.

4. Let’s not talk about “the arts.”  Reproducible and non-reproducible art forms will respond very differently to income inequality, as Alex and I argued in the SEJ.  Cooking is yet another story, if we are going to call that art.

5. Piketty himself neglects the “wealth can generate additional TFP” possibility, and that remains a significant hole in his argument.

Overall this ED post is a good example of how easily and quickly one can go awry by an obsession with framing everything in terms of inequality.  It also shows the drawbacks of a relative unfamiliarity with the basic literature, including for that matter the recent book by Piketty.


"Inequality" is the perfect framing principle for the Dems and "progs" because Republicans and conservative will never sound convincing when they try to describe what they will do about it.

Whereas the Dems can't sound convincing about people's real concerns: ie. stagnant economy, precarious situation of the middle classes etc.

The quality of golf course architecture in America over the last century correlates closely with the degree of economic inequality. The Golden Age of golf design here was 1909 to 1929. Few golf courses were built from the early Depression to the late 1940s. The egalitarian 1950s into the 1970s are known among golf architecture aficionados as the Dark Ages. The quality of new golf courses has revived as the rich have gotten richer, and this isn't just a statistical connection: rich patrons like greeting cards zillionaire Mike Keiser have been essential.


Nothing will replace St. Andrew's for me, sir.

I don't know why but whenever I read a Steve Sailer post on golf course architecture I crack up. That and oddly knowledgeable biopics of like 1950s half Mexican have Colombian boxers or something

From the Pyramids onward, inequality and artistic accomplishment are closely correlated.

As is authoritarianism.

correlation itself means nothing, there is absolutely zero connection between economic inequality and political or social power, money is a vehicle for spending and investment nothing more.

Well put, but you left one thing ambiguous; it must be very clearly stated that there is also connection between political and social power. Political power comes from voting, social power doesn't matter so long as well all have freedom from political power, which as I mentioned come from voting so it means we have the power over ourselves, which means we have freedom. In fact, there isno such thing as social power anyway, forget I said anything.

I don't suppose there's a way to know this quantitatively, but I think the pyramids have probably paid for themselves. Egypt was a tourist destination even in the times of the ancient Greeks. We could talk about opportunity cost, but I don't know what else they could have built that would continue to deliver revenue today. I'm pretty sure they could not have built the Aswan Dam using the labor spent on the pyramids, because the technology would have been way beyond them. (The largest dam of ancient Egypt appears to have failed.) Maybe they could have built the Suez Canal, and if so that might have delivered a greater return, but there were probably poltical/religious reasons that made the pyramids possible which would not have applied to a big canal.

On the other hand, the ancient construction that probably delivered the greatest return on investment was certainly the Grand Canal in China, which is still in use today.

It's difficult to determine rate of return when the initial cost is skewed by mass slavery. Opportunity cost as well: would more utility have been created by spending all of that slave labor teaching the slaves to read and do math?

We don't know that the pyramids were built by slaves. It may have been farmers in the off-season, like a tax paid in labor.

According to Wikipedia, Neuschwanstein Castle paid for its construction costs only 13 years after it was opened to tourists, following the death (likely murder) of Mad King Ludwig. It was the largest employer in the region for two decades during its construction. I'd call that an outstanding success.


I suspect the pyramids and other world-famous constructions like the Parthenon and Taj Mahal have paid for themselves many times over.

The ugliest architecture I've ever seen is from post-WWII welfare state Britain.

My new Taki's Magazine column is on the stately homes of England and what they say about economic history:


As they say, Town Planners and Architects did far more damage to British cities than the Luftwaffe. Or, to put it more bluntly, Marxists did more damage than Nazis. Which just goes to show that not all varieties of socialism are equal.

Personally I was never quite keen on that new fangled Crystal Palace

I could see where this debate was going when Henry Farrell said in criticism of Tyler Cowen's Foreign Affairs article --

"More precisely, you want to show that confining cultural production to a small minority of independently wealthy individuals (or those who can be supported by wealthy families or patrons) is better than allowing a larger, and much more heterogenous group of people the necessary freedom “from the immediate demands of the marketplace” to produce art and culture. Otherwise, your argument for the cultural benefits of high inequality undermines itself."

Tyler Cowen did not say he wants to confine cultural production to a small elite. Nor did he say cultural output will be better if it's paid for only by the 1%. It's ridiculous. He'd never say that.

Farrell has painted a dreadful straw man, almost a self portrait, but nowhere near as good as Van Gogh's self-portrait in a straw hat, which was funded by a wealthy patron. Keep practising.

However I think I know what 'enry Farrell is saying. What does "releasing the artists from the market" mean ? Only one thing. State subsidy. In a proletarian de-rentiered society, 'enry Farrell wants the government (i.e. state employed cultural elites who within the prebendary network) to decide who produces art and who gets the dosh. Government already has a big say in which artists get publicly displayed. Farrell wants the whole caboodle of high culture -- production as well as consumption -- to be entirely divorced from the market place. For the moral good of cultcha ! It seems he might want to return us to stone age art.

I would like to point out that wealthy art collectors have in recent years become the target of all the usual sort of riff-raff rabble rousers. On one particular occassion my good friend Lord Thomas Bruce returned from a sojourn in Greece with a lovely, exquisitly assembled collection of classical sculptures. You would not believe the commentrary in some quarters accusing him of looting and theft. We no longer live in a dignified age of respect and polite discussion.

Ah, a friendly nineteenth century colonial ghost come to speak on the internet. And do you know dear Monsieur Comandante -- you who were nought but another cowardly anonymous dependent of her Majesty's Royal navy -- do you who owns those pieces of looted art today ? I can tell you sir. L'état !!

I knew it would be possible to slip in an appropriately subtle reference to one book, but it seems as if not noting the other four is almost cheating. Or is 'Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding' just not the sort of book that one wants to highlight too prominently, being more academic?

And one hopes you enjoyed spending some time in the Fenwick Library, perusing the Federal Theatre Project photograph collection -
'Organized in 1935, The Federal Theatre Project flourished as the first and only federally sponsored and subsidized theater program in the United States until its end in 1939. The FTP was a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided employment for large numbers of artists, writers, and performers during the Great Depression (1929-1939). Directed by Hallie Flanagan (1880-1969), the FTP provided employment for theatrical professionals throughout the United States during the Great Depression. Actors, playwrights, scene designers and builders, seamstresses, lighting experts, ushers, box-office men, and stagehands all found employment through the FTP.

Like many New Deal programs implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Federal Theatre Project was intended not only to benefit its participants, but also to enrich the condition of the nation.' http://sca.gmu.edu/finding_aids/ftpphoto.html

Though admittedly, no need to go through all 47.0 linear feet (112 boxes) of photogpraphs - the book Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project. by fellow faculty members Lorraine Brown and John O’Connor is likely representative enough.

I believe the standard abbreviation is TED, for The Epicurean Dealmaker.

The Epicurean Dealmaker tore you a new one, Tyler, just admit it.

The real crux of his argument is that the 19th century wasn't extraordinary in its artistic production, and that the 20th century was equally if not more dynamic, at a time of shrinking inequality.

Get your head out of your ass.

Inequality is not the relevant variable

And will we get a Kling round-robin bounce? -

'It is a truth universally acknowledged that the public funding of arts and culture will cause political strife. Reasonable people just do not agree on this, and can be surprisingly quick to accuse others of ideological warmongering.

That’s code of course for your own views being sound and sensible, while those of the other side are naïve, selfish, tyrannical, philistine, or just flat-out wrong in a way that is impervious to logic and evidence. It’s almost as if they’re speaking another language.

The Three Languages of Politics is a short e-book by Arnold Kling, a US economist and blogger. It will take perhaps an hour to read, and costs just A$2. Or you can listen to a podcast here. The book is about why intelligent, well-meaning people disagree so much, and so bitterly, about politics. Kling’s thesis is that they are, in effect, speaking different languages.' https://theconversation.com/the-three-languages-of-arts-and-cultural-funding-26333

There have been two long discussions on Crooked Timber arguing against/ about Tyler's position, one of which appeared today.

I think the nineteenth century is a bad example to use in the argument. The nineteenth century was the first century where the middle class had enough money to support the arts, and it had a big effect, particularly in classical music. The nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries were unique in the arts NOT being dependent on the patronage of a few wealthy people.

Overall, the "you need hierarchical societies to have art" argument applies if we are talking about the relatively egalitarian hunter-gather societies, and post-Neolithic agricultural based societies. Agriculture ruined alot of things, but farms and cities are definitely associated with more and better artistic production. I don't think it makes much sense when you are comparing post-industrial societies that happen to organize differently and to distrbute wealth differently.

(1)The definition of inequality matters. Did the rise of the middle class in the 19th century reduce inequality, or increase it? It reduced the income share of the top 1%, but it increased the income share of the top 30%. From teh point of view of a peasant, the rise of the middle class increased inequality.

(2) One thing is wealth creation vs. inequality. Another thing is rentiers vs. inequality. I would speculate that an increase in the proporition of idle rentiers, ceteris paribus, is good for the arts. If they aren't working, they have to be doing somethign with their time. They will spend more time refining the quality of their consumption---- especially if they are low-income rentiers. Part of this woudl be to be careful shoppers in terms of price, part would be to be careful shoppers in terms of quality. The rentier has more time to appreciate art.

I'm bored with the art debate. There will always be forms of creative expression as long as their is some minimal level of individual freedom. I sing, write music, play songs, take photos, draw, and occasionally paint. I also enjoy seeing others' creative work. But I do it in addition to having a job that pays the bills.

I don't really care about the decline (or rise) in the number of full-time artists because there will always be creative expression.

Directors of donor sponsored policy institutes can't be as laissez-faire as you.

Unless they have tenure, that is,

It is very rare to have high level art without full time artists.

This response is really embarassing. Setting aside the concern trolling, your points are so self-evidently terrible that I find myself crediting ED more after reading your post.

#1 is highly misleading. You asserted in your review that Piketty's attachment to low capital to income ratios was misplaced in part because in the nineteenth century, notwithstanding a high capital to income ratio, "stocks of wealth" liberated "creators" from the immediate demands of the marketplace and permitted them to create and innovate to society's benefit. This point, as ED and others have argued, is only a defense of a "high capital to income" society in that it shows that such a state of affairs does not rule out some amount of creativity and innovation. But it begs the question of whether the particular distribution of those "stocks of wealth" spurred creativity or acted as a drag on it. To answer that question, you need to compare cultural productivity across different eras. In short, 19th century France's cultural output is not a self-evident validation of its economic structure.

#2 should say: "Oops! I forgot to point out in my review that Piketty's history is wrong because there is this paper I found that shows consumption inequality declined during the 19th century. My bad." Its disingenuous to criticize ED for failing to identify and credit this paper, especially when it does not deal with the thrust of his argument.

#3 is pretty weak sauce. Which statements are intemperate, doubtful or contested and how so? Your reference to your books, which, by the by, is a naked appeal to your own authority rather than an actual argument, is plainly insufficient to demonstrate the truth of your contentions.

#4 is a nice bit of nit picking and hand waving, especially because you set the terms of this debate by discussing French painters (whose output is not reproducible) and French writers (whose output is easily and widely reproduced) interchangeably.

#5 is also irrelevant to ED's post, which does not, by any means, dispute that productivity growth generates wealth.

Was this written by an intern?

I've only been reading this blog for a few months. Does Cowen usually embarrass himself this often?

Never this extensively. His fanatical obsession with 'putting pickety' in his place really does remind one of an elderly academician bitter with jealousy over the new found popularity of a younger man, marshaling any twist of sophistry to try to put some dent onto him. I've been reading him for 5-6 years now and he has never revealed the sheer scale of his bitterness over being a relatively obscure popular economist.

We live in interesting times, it seems. I expect a truly massive cultural and ideological shift to happen amongst the libertarian blogosphere after the 2016 elections. I can hardly wait!

What was life expectancy in 1820s London?

Inequality was not just about wealth creation. Wage slaves literally worked themselves to death, earning enough to push out a few children for the next generation of wage slaves.

Fortunately, this setup did not last for toooo long.

What was life expectancy in 1870s London?

What explains the difference in life expectancy in 1820s London and 1870s London?

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Please read TED's response. Definitely worth the price of admission.


"Cowen takes a detour to praise the cultural dynamism and productivity of 19th Century France, which he claims results from the substantial socioeconomic inequality of the period." Indeed, the Brasilian economist Renato Flôres found for differents world regions, a strong link (at least, a correlation) between historical episodes of high socioeconomic inequality and arts development and innovation.

FYI: http://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/dspace/bitstream/handle/10438/441/2134.pdf?sequence=1

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