07 August 2003

Every so often—particularly when my mind is so muddled by muscle relaxants that I can't "work," but can pontificate—I get an uncontrollable urge to point out amusing ironies in legal and publishing culture. Since this month has had a lot of reference to economic justifications for and consequences of copyright, that leads to a true irony:

   Do the often conservative and occasionally reactionary scholars and judges who subscribe to "law and economics" realize that they're Marxists?

   At least, they are Marxist in that they accept the underlying assumption of Das Kapital: that economic self-interest is the necessary and sufficient consideration in explaining human group behavior. This is not to say that economic self-interest is useless by any means; in all probability, it is necessary in explaining (almost) all human group behavior. That different schools of economics may well come to different answers as to the impact of that self-interest and its policy implications just adds to the fun. The problem is that economics is seldom a sufficient explanation for anything that is not by definition involved in the allocation of scarce resources. This leads to the real question, the one that economic analysis by itself cannot answer: Is creation of artistic works in that class?

   Provisionally, I would have to answer "no." While there are certainly economic factors involved in motivating the distribution of artistic works, and thus in some sense providing both motivation and exposure for other potential creators, there remain other rationales for creating works of art. The master of the middle-brow—a writer whose skill as a writer per se is almost completely neglected—had this to say:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death ….

2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.…

3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are ….

4. Political purpose—using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is completely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

George Orwell, "Why I Write" (1946) (emphasis added). That Orwell was a staunch socialist, despite his clear-eyed rejected of communism, is often either glossed over by or unknown to those who would claim him for the Right. And, in a circle, we're back to Marx again. A very wobbly circle perhaps, but in any event a closed circuit.