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Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By JAMES SEATON
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Cantor/Cox’s case for the relevance of “the economics of liberty” is all the stronger because they wisely refrain from making the sort of grandiose claims to all-encompassing insight that have long been a specialty of Marxists. They point out that “one of the differences between Austrian economics and Marxism is that [Austrian economics] does not present itself as a master science, with an underlying explanation for all phenomena.” Cantor/Cox emphasize that the analyses offered “are based on detailed, careful readings of individual texts treated in their integrity.” Their collection is “fundamentally a book of literary criticism,” and if they call upon “the principles of Austrian economics,” it is in large part because those principles when examined “begin to sound a lot like common sense: human beings are free and make their choices as individuals.” Thus, Cantor writes, instead of “substituting the critic’s understanding for the author’s, an Austrian approach would look to understand an author as he understood himself.”

Parodoxically, it appears that the perspective offered by free-market, or “Austrian,” economics has the effect of allowing literary criticism to regain the disciplinary integrity it loses when it is absorbed by Marxism or by Marxist-influenced “cultural studies.” Yes, Ludwig von Mises’s “praxeology” does present itself as “a universal explanation of human action,” as contributor Darío Fernández-Morera puts it; but on the evidence of this anthology, resorting to “praxeology” results in nothing worse than redefining economic terms to make common sense observations. Thus Cox writes that, according to Mises, “the quest for profit is universal,” which at first seems to imply a narrow view of human motivation, but he adds that “enjoyment of any kind can amount to profit.”

Hayek’s conception of “spontaneous order” is no doubt a conception whose full importance is yet to be appreciated, but perhaps the most important accomplishment of Literature and the Economics of Liberty is its demonstration that it is possible for literary critics to discuss works of literature with sensitivity and insight without wholesale condemnation of middle-class mores and capitalism. This sounds like mere common sense, but in the era of postmodernism, moving up to the intellectual level of common sense is a signal achievement.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.

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