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.


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