“Black Death and Taxes” at the Freeman



Black Death and Taxes

They had more to do with each other than you might think

NOVEMBER 25, 2013

The plague and the Little Ice Age didn’t do Europe any favors. But the excesses of the State amplified the damage.

Who destroyed the first golden age of television?

In his comments on my recent blog post "lowbrow," Scott Lahti points us to this article from the Atlantic:

"Why Is the Golden Age of TV So Dark?"

I hadn’t realized there was such a consensus that we are now in a new golden age of television, but if the current age stretches back 10 or 15 years, I have to agree. TV writing is so much smarter, funnier, and more compelling now than it was when I was growing up, watching way too much of it.

If now is the new golden age, when was the previous one? The established wisdom, apparently, is that TV viewers were their most fortunate in the 1950s.

Paul Cantor talks about that original "Golden Age of Television" in his lecture series "Commerce and Culture" and Wikipedia confirms that the term refers to an era that "began sometime in the late 1940s and extended to the late 1950s or early 1960s."

Why these peaks, and why the trough in the years between? Read more of this post

price theory a la Rupert Murdoch

RupertMurdochRupert Murdoch was buying up online properties in the mid 1990s, trying to do with the newly commercial Internet what he had done with FOX television during the previous ten years or so. One of his new acquisitions was a gaming company here in Charlottesville. My friend and I became the two "web guys" for the company. It was my first full-time job in the private sector.

When I was discussing my yet-to-be-submitted laugh-track article with Paul Cantor and I mentioned that it was competition from HBO and FOX that pushed canned laughter into retreat, Professor Cantor recommended the book The Fourth Network: How FOX Broke the Rules and Reinvented Television by Daniel M. Kimmel.

He says it was his main source for this lecture:

"When Is a Network Not a Network?" (It’s a great talk!)

I said, "You know, I used to work for Rupert Murdoch."

"Don’t you realize," Cantor quipped, "at some point EVERYBODY has worked for Rupert Murdoch."

Charlottesville, perhaps like most university towns, is famously left-wing. Rupert Murdoch was infamously right-wing long before FOX News became the unofficial media arm of the Republican Party. So I sensed a definite ambivalence, sometimes defensiveness, among my co-workers about the guy in charge. Read more of this post

Capitalism and Spirituality

DollarSunriseOne advantage a libertarian author has when working with Invisible Order is that we in the Order are well read in the relevant literature and have worked extensively with both scholarly and popular texts.

For example, one writer recently asked us what Ludwig von Mises would have to say about a passage he had found online:

Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological complexities of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to “democratic” capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.

Here is my reply:

Read more of this post


ApologeticsWithoutApologyWirkman Virkkala has several thoughts to add on capitalist television and lowbrow tastes.

A small sample:

It really did take substantial competition — the proliferation of channels and “networks” on cable and satellite — to bring diversity and new aesthetic life into a now-old medium, “television.” This is the Golden Age of TV right now, and it’s not because government had a program and a budget to make TV better. It’s because government was made largely irrelevant, and competition allowed to flourish.

“Apologetics Without Apology?”

worshipping the wrong goddess



Worshipping the Wrong Goddess

Democracy and Liberty Don’t Necessarily Go Together

July 22, 2013 by B.K. Marcus

Read more of this post

Does capitalism make us dumb?


The anti-capitalists contend that the market fosters whatever has the broadest appeal, even when the lowest common denominator indulges our basest appetites.

Defenders of freedom and markets tend to fall back on one of two strategies: either explaining why capitalism’s apparent vice is really a virtue (would we really prefer a system in which a self-selected elite got to plan the supply independent of demand?), or championing the products impugned by capitalism’s critics.

Ludwig von Mises took the first position. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he defended the popularity of detective stories not because of any inherent virtue in the genre but because murder mysteries were what the reading public wanted, whether or not the literati approved of their preferences.

Attempts at the second approach include compelling defenses of car culture, panegyrics to the Twinkie, even praise for shoddy products.

Some targets of disparagement, however, deserve a third approach.

One such target is the canned laughter of television comedies, which has been the object of critical censure for over half a century.

As University of Minnesota art history professor Karal Ann Marling says,

Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium, because it treats the audience as though they were sheep who need to be told when something is funny — even if, in fact, it’s not very funny.

James Parker, entertainment columnist for the Atlantic, disagrees. In fact, he laments the laugh track’s recent decline:

Silence now encases the sitcom, the lovely, corny crackle of the laugh track having vaporized into little bathetic air pockets and farts of anticlimax. Enough, I say. This burlesque of naturalism has depleted us.… Who knew irony could be so cloying?

So do we file the laugh track in the same category into which Mises put pulp fiction?

Or should we instead follow the model of the staunch defenders, and explain why the elitists are simply wrong?

The third approach is to question the premise. Is the laugh track really a product of the market, or did it dominate TV comedies for decades because of government regulation of broadcast media?

In "Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track?" I act as defense attorney in the case of The People versus Capitalism, pleading not guilty in the case of the laugh track.


Given the limited length of a Freeman article, I had to give an extremely condensed version of the history of broadcast media and cartelization. You can find a more thorough account of that story in my 2006 article for the Journal of Libertarian Studies: "Radio Free Rothbard," available in PDF and HTML.

Cross-posted to the Libertarian Standard.

Should we thank the State for the Internet?

ARPAnetIn a comment on my post “recycling regress” Scott Lahti points us to an article by the author of The Ghost Map, defending Silicon Valley against the slanderous accusation that it’s full of libertarians. Scott describes the article this way:

Steven Johnson v. Libertarianism 101, if not 2.0.

Here’s the opening of Johnson’s article:

Read more of this post

oh, the humanity!

ChineseHindenburgYes, a famous German zeppelin did crash 76 years ago today: May 6, 1937. It caught fire while trying to land in New Jersey. But most people already know about the Hindenburg.

I’m guessing far fewer know about a different inhuman event whose anniversary is also today.

Wikipedia tells us that on this date in 1882,

U.S. President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, implementing a ban on Chinese immigration to the United States that eventually lasted for over 60 years until the 1943 Magnuson Act.

This event in immigration history tells us a lot about the politics and economics of anti-immigration sentiment in general.

Read more of this post

dirty work

gmbookI first heard of Steven Johnson’s 2006 book The Ghost Map from a George Will piece called “Survival of the Sudsiest.” The book’s full title is The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Will describes it as "a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water.”

In the "The Books of Summer" (Liberty, July 2007), Bruce Ramsey also recommends it:

It tells the tale of the deadly outbreak of cholera in London in 1854, and how two men, a doctor and a preacher, proved how it was spread.… In parallel to the detective story is a revolting description of London in the early industrial age. The industrial revolution made London the earth’s largest city with the earth’s largest waste problem. Libertarians will note that market mechanisms did arise to handle this, though they were, in the author’s estimation, not so good. They will note that the first solution imposed by government made matters worse — but that the second one was better. The book also shows how the provision of sewers and a clean water supply ended cholera epidemics by the last quarter of the 19th century.

I’m finally getting around to reading The Ghost Map, and while it is compelling and enjoyable from the first page, it is also an excellent example of why it helps to have some economic literacy to be able to read popular history critically.

Both Johnson’s masterly prose and his questionable economics are evident from the first. Read more of this post