Business in English Literature

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Source: The Representation of Business in English Literature, edited and with an Introduction by Arthur Pollard. Foreword by John Blundell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009).

Copyright: Copyright 2009 by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Reprinted and online by permission.

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Foreword john blundell

At first glance it might seem a little out of the ordinary for the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) to publish a collection of essays on the representation of business in English literature over the past three centuries, however good those essays may be.

However, the mission of the IEA is to broaden public understanding of the functioning of a free economy. Thus a very significant part of its work has to do with understanding the processes by which public opinion evolves and, against such analysis, to consider how the free economy is viewed, why it is so viewed, and how such a view might be improved.

When the IEA’s founder, the late Sir Antony G. A. Fisher, met with future Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in the summer of 1945,1 Hayek was between The Road to Serfdom and The Intellectuals and Socialism. The former was his call to arms, the latter his blueprint for change. In that blueprint he lists the types of people he believes make up the class of “intellectuals.”2 Before doing so, however, he makes these points:

  • before you try making such a list yourself “it is difficult to realise how numerous it is”; try it now yourself before going any further—list all the intellectual professions you can think of;
  • the “scope” for the “activities” of this “class” or group constantly increases in modern society; and
  • “how dependent on it (that is, the class of intellectuals) we have become.”

Hayek’s list then goes on as follows:

  • “journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction (my emphasis), cartoonists, and artists—all of whom may be masters of the technique of conveying ideas but are usually amateurs so far as the substance of what they convey is concerned”; and
  • “many professional men and technicians, such as scientists and doctors, who through their habitual intercourse with the printed word become carriers of new ideas outside their own fields and who, because of their expert knowledge of their own subjects, are listened to with respect on most others.”

To Hayek the term intellectual is not very satisfactory because it does not give a full picture of the size of this group of “secondhand dealers in ideas.” This lack of a precise term he thinks has deterred serious study of the role of such people. He also attempts his own definition which has always delighted me, ever since I first read it as an undergraduate at the LSE.

In Hayek’s view, when someone is performing the intellectual function he or she is not an “original thinker” nor a “scholar or expert in a particular field.” In performing intellectual work he or she does not “possess special knowledge of anything in particular” and “need not even be particularly intelligent.” What the intellectual does have is “the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write” and “a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself.”

Hayek presents a bleak picture. He is clearly saying that this large class of intellectuals consists of two categories. In the first are the people who are expert at conveying ideas but are complete and utter amateurs when it comes to substance and need not even be particularly intelligent. In the second are people who are the true experts in a particular small area; unfortunately this gives them the standing such that they are listened to with respect in all kinds of other areas well outside their areas of competence.

Hayek often told the story of how he nearly turned down the award of the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1974 because he feared the impact on him of being asked to comment on anything and everything under the sun with people hanging on, and possibly acting on, every word. Likewise former world number-one-ranked golfer David Duval (whose tour nickname is “the intellectual” because he says he both reads, and understands the ideas behind, the novels of Ayn Rand) was staggered at the range of questions, from astronomy to zoology, put to him while he enjoyed that top spot. Fortunately for both golf and society he was sufficiently intelligent to laugh off such inquiries.

Hayek’s point about the intellectual not needing to know too much was brilliantly illustrated in Don’t Quote Me: Hi, My Name Is Steven, and I’m a Recovering Talking Head by Dr. Steven Gorelick in the Washington Post Outlook Section, Sunday, 27 August 2000. Dr. Gorelick is special assistant to the President at the City University of New York’s Graduate School and University Center, and his Outlook piece was condensed from the 21 July issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gorelick is an expert on how communities on the one hand, and news organisations on the other hand, respond to high-profile violent crimes. Over a ten-year period he found that having the Dr. title, holding an academic job and being the kind of person who keeps up with the issues of the day, he experienced “expertise creep” and was soon commenting on topics far outside his general area of expertise.

His moment of truth came when he was asked, “Should adopted children be encouraged to locate their birth parents?” He framed a suitable response in his mind: “It is probably not possible for an adult to form a complete, integrated personality without knowing fundamental facts about his or her personal history.” Suddenly he realised he “knew absolutely nothing about adoption.” He declined to comment and ever since has taken “the pledge” under which he refuses to be given a platform as an expert on something he knows nothing about. One would think this would be easy. Why would people want your view on something you know nothing about? He reports it is hard, as the telephone rings with requests for his views on euthanasia, socialisation and military readiness.

In the Hayekian vision of change there are experts and original thinkers or scholars, that is, firsthand dealers in ideas. But we are “almost all ordinary men” outside our specialist fields and thus terribly dependent on the class of intellectuals or secondhand dealers in ideas, including novelists, for access to the ideas and work of the experts. The intellectuals truly are the gatekeepers of ideas “who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision.”

Time and again IEA authors have turned to the theme of what makes public opinion from Not from Benevolence: Twenty Years of Economic Dissent3 to The Emerging Consensus? Essays on the Interplay Between Ideas, Interests and Circumstances in the First Twenty-five Years of the IEA;4 and from Ideas, Interests and Consequences5 to British Economic Opinion: A Survey of a Thousand Economists.6 A recent Liberty Fund video, in its Intellectual Portrait series, in which Lord Harris and Arthur Seldon are interviewed about the IEA’s influence on opinion, is in the same tradition, and, as this Readings concerns itself with “writers of fiction,” mention must also be made of Michael Jefferson’s chapter, “Industrialisation and Poverty: In Fact and Fiction,” in The Long Debate on Poverty.7

In the chapters that follow, one is faced with a rather damning picture of prodigiously wasteful, yet Scrooge-like businessmen who are abnormal and antagonistic; corrupt, cunning and cynical; dishonest, disorderly, doltish, dumb and duplicitous; inhumane, insensitive and irresponsible; ruthless; unethical and unprincipled; and villainous to boot. Direct data, loved by economists, are not available, but in the closely related field of TV entertainment some relief is to hand.8 The Washington, D.C.-based Media Institute tracked the portrayal of businessmen in two hundred episodes of fifty prime time TV programmes. It found that:

  • “Over half of all corporate chiefs on television commit illegal acts ranging from fraud to murder.”
  • “Forty-five percent of all business activities on television are portrayed as illegal.”
  • “Only 3 percent of television businessmen engage in socially or economically productive behavior.”
  • “Hard work is usually ridiculed on television as ‘workaholism’ that inevitably leads to strained personal relationships.”9

Put another way, 97 percent of business is either illegal (Crooks) or duplicitous (Conmen) or foolish (Clowns), and those who practice it have rotten marriages and unhappy kids. . . . Of course they would have because they are all emotionally atrophied. Would the data for our novelists be any different? I doubt it.

The only possible TV bright spot is small business. Here the protagonist is not so much a vicious, corrupt, murdering drug dealer masquerading as a city banker, as a dumb, inept, social climber, way out of his league and subject to ridicule. So it is not much of a bright spot.

And in The Businessman in American Literature (University of Georgia Press, 1982), Emily Stipes Watts lights on a similar vein, namely “small, private businessmen” but even then openly admits that “four sympathetic protagonists . . . created by three important post-1945 novelists do not compose a dominant trend” (149). Indeed, less than twenty years later, my U.S. bookstore could not find one of the four titles and was unsure of another.

In some fields of literature, the portrayal of business is more positive. Popular writers such as Neville Shute and Dick Francis between them populate some three score or more high-selling books with lots of self-employed small business characters who are heroic yet humble; problem-solving and law-abiding; self-reliant and self-interested but not selfish. Long-running British soap operas such as Coronation Street and Eastenders have their fair share of used car dealers of all types, but many of the main characters are utterly respectable smaller business people making wonderful contributions to all the lives around them. It is when one moves to a Dallas or to a Booker prize candidate that the picture changes and it is difficult, nay impossible, to point to “literary capitalism” while “literary socialism” abounds.

So why is the picture so bleak? Why does the novelist, the writer of fiction, spit at the market, despise its institutions such as private property and the rule of law, and try to bite off the hand that feeds him? Surely Hayek again has part, at least, of the answer for us, when later in The Intellectuals and Socialism he discusses the role of disaffection.

For Hayek, the talented person who accepts our prevailing current norms and institutions faces a wide range of good career paths. However, to those who are “disaffected and dissatisfied” with the current order “an intellectual career is the most promising path to both influence and the power to contribute to the achievement of his ideals.”

But Hayek goes further. The top-class person not “disaffected and dissatisfied” is more likely to opt for the scholarly rather than intellectual path whereas his equally able peer who is out to change things will see an intellectual rather than scholarly route as “a means rather than an end, a path to exactly that kind of wide influence which the professional intellectual exercises.”

Hayek concludes this section by asserting that there is no greater propensity to what he calls socialism among the more intelligent in society than to any other “ism.” If one gets that impression from the pulpit or in the classroom or from the television or in novels then it is simply because “among the best minds” there is a higher propensity among the socialists than among, say, the capitalists to “devote themselves to those intellectual pursuits which in modern society give them a decisive influence on public opinion.”

Should those concerned with the intellectual climate in which business operates be concerned about these scribblers of novels? How should they respond?

The power of fiction to convey a message is beyond question. As Hayek wrote The Intellectuals and Socialism, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BCC) was busy establishing a daily fifteen-minute wireless soap opera set in the mythical country village of Ambridge. Its purpose then was to teach farmers good, new agricultural techniques to get the most out of the land in highly rationed post-World War II Britain. Today it is more likely to feature a politically correct lesbian couple on an organic hobby farm wanting to adopt a baby than an ordinary landowning farmer off to market.

Another BBC offering, the combined thirty-eight episodes of Yes, Minister, and Yes, Prime Minister by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, are not so much comedy as deeply insightful, highly educational, powerful training movies which have completely altered the way a generation looks at its government. Jay and Lynn’s programmes, which were recently voted ninth in a compilation of the one hundred best TV shows for the British Film Institute, removed our blinkers.

In the U.S., commentators from John Chamberlain on (“The Businessman in Fiction,” Fortune, November 1948, 134-48) have credited “to some extent” the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act directly to Upton Sinclair’s depiction of the slaughterhouses of Chicago in The Jungle. Chamberlain wondered why, in the face of the incredible impact of his novels, Upton Sinclair continued to write as if nothing had changed, either on the part of the businessman or on the part of the legislators.

Surely the answer is very simple and has close parallels with the so-called “environment movement” of today. Neither Sinclair nor the leaders of today’s “environment movement” are at all, not remotely, interested in improvement. The idea of a new, improved, kinder, gentler capitalism is utterly alien to them. They want to tear it down and destroy it: the novel or the “environment movement” is simply a means to an end, the outright destruction of business, the total demise of capitalism.

In both cases—the novelist and the environmentalist—appeasement has never worked and will never work. Legislation directly addressing Upton Sinclair’s worries did not slow him down one jot in the opening decades of the twentieth century and likewise with the environmentalists in the closing decades.

So how would I reply to the businessman who says, “Look, John, we are getting a real bad press here with these writers of fiction. It isn’t funny and over the long haul it is damaging our ability to provide our customers with quality products at a good price while simultaneously paying the pension funds who own us a good return. What should we do?”

First, I would urge patience and caution. Three centuries of bad press will not be fixed overnight, and throwing millions of pounds at problems such as this by, say, endowing an Oxbridge Chair of Literary Capitalism is not only futile but also self-defeating, as such resources will immediately be captured by the anti-capitalists.

Second, I would say that education is important and I would start a very modest programme of outreach to brand-new emerging talent. A day spent visiting a factory or similar capitalist institution would be a positive eye-opener for most, if not all, such talent.

Third, my still modest outreach programme would extend to current leaders, both market-place practitioners and academic theorists, to engage them in whatever way possible.

Lastly, I would argue that incentives do matter, and I would seek to find ways of financially rewarding fiction writers above all who treat business as an honourable, creative, moral and personally satisfying way of life. Some of the pounds spent on appeasing might be better spent on encouraging and rewarding.

Finally a word about the origins of this book. They go back some years now to a series of conversations I had with Fiona Davis, then a policy analyst with the Confederation of British Industry. Fiona was a regular attender at IEA events and had a degree in English literature from Oxford University. My knowledge of the American literature in this area mentioned above but also including “The Capitalist as Hero in the American Novel” by John (“Jack”) R. Cashill (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Purdue University, August 1982; printed by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1985) led us to discuss the idea of an IEA publication on how business has been treated over the centuries in English literature. Pressures from other commitments stalled Fiona’s progress, but serendipitously a favourable reference to Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South in an American magazine brought the name of Professor Arthur Pollard to mind and he caught the baton just in time.

As always, the views expressed in Readings 53 are those of the authors, not the Institute (which has no corporate view), its managing trustees, Academic Advisory Council members or senior staff.

[1. ] See “Hayek, Fisher and The Road to Serfdom,” my Introduction to the IEA’s November 1999 reprint of the Reader’s Digest condensed version of The Road to Serfdom, xi-xix. It was at this meeting that Hayek told Fisher “. . . reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail and the politicians will follow.”

[2. ] In a letter to Fisher of 5 January 1985 Hayek confirms that this essay “gives a clear account of what I had then in mind in giving you the advice I did.” Hayek later in that letter claims to have found the essay “pleasantly good” on his rereading of it.

[3. ] Hobart Paperback 10, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1977, 2nd impression 1977.

[4. ] Hobart Paperback 14, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1981.

[5. ] Readings 30, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1989.

[6. ] Research Monograph 45, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1990.

[7. ] Readings 9, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1972, 2nd ed. 1974.

[8. ] Hayek was of course writing at the very dawn of television and were he writing today he would surely have included this medium.

[9. ]Crooks, Conmen and Clowns: Businessmen in TV Entertainment (Media Institute, 1981).