Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture

Paul A. Cantor Stephen D. Cox

The economic interpretation of literature is dominated by ideas derived from Marxism — ideas that demonize the market as the enemy of all that is good. 

This book, edited by well-known literary critics Paul Cantor (University of Virginia) and Stephen Cox (University of California, San Diego) turns the prevailing paradigm upside down — criticism (and a theory of criticism) from a pro-market point of view.

The appearance of this work, many years in the making, is a major publishing event for the Mises Institute. It means the expansion of a theoretical paradigm into a new, exciting area. Professor Cantor was a student of Ludwig von Mises before turning his attention to literature, and Professor Cox is editor of a monthly periodical on libertarian ideas. This treatise combines their academic specializations with their love of liberty to provide a new way of looking at literature.

For free-market advocates, it means the discovery of a completely new area of friends in a new sector, friends that we didn’t know we had, people like Willa Cather for example. Chapter after chapter maps this out and proves it with detailed analytics and highly sophisticated, yet readable, criticism of the works in question.

The book argues that literature is one of the most powerful reflections of humanity’s freedom, spontaneity, and creativity. Great works of literature buck the trend and break the mold. No one, not even their authors, can predict where they will come from or what form they will take.

They may at first appear chaotic because they violate established literary norms, and only time and greater familiarity reveal the inner logic of their form. Perpetually open-ended in its formal possibilities, literature often celebrates the open-ended nature of human life in general.

Novels, for example, are at their best when they capture the complexity and unpredictability of human behavior, the refusal of human beings to do what conventional logic dictates. We have statistics to tell us what human beings are likely to do en masse; we need literature to chronicle what individuals actually do in the concrete circumstances that constitute their real lives.

Human beings are free and literature mirrors that freedom.

Literary critics — particularly those influenced by Marxism — often turn texts and the characters they represent into predictable products of their environments.  They view literature as the product of determinate economic and social circumstances, and authors as captives of class consciousness.

This book pursues economic interpretations of literature while respecting the freedom and creativity of authors. To do so, it draws upon a form of economics — the Austrian School — that places freedom and creativity at the center of its understanding of human action.

Austrian economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, deny that human behavior is predictable, not just in practice, but more fundamentally in theory. They view the realm of economics as radically uncertain, and understand economic activity as “creative destruction,” a never-ending process of making and unmaking modes of production that is the mirror image of artistic activity.

At the heart of Austrian economics is the concept of “spontaneous order.” What appears to be chaotic in the social interaction of vast numbers of individuals in the marketplace in fact reflects a deeper order, what Adam Smith calls “the invisible hand.” The free market produces more rational results than any form of central planning because markets use self-correcting mechanisms to adapt to perpetually changing economic conditions.

This book explores the idea that spontaneous order is the concept that can bridge the economic and cultural realms. Austrian economics and literature deal with the same world — the concrete human world of open-ended and infinite possibility. In both Austrian economics and literature, human beings reveal their natures only in concrete acts of choice — the deepest expression of their freedom.

In addition to developing a new framework for understanding and interpreting literature, this book offers rich new readings of a wide range of literary classics from many different nations. Drawing upon years of interdisciplinary experience in literature and economics, the contributors open up fresh perspectives on works as traditional as Cervantes’s Don Quijote and as contemporary as Okri’s The Famished Road.

Literature and the Economics of Liberty is a major critical statement on the relationship between economics and literature. Challenging a Marxist orthodoxy that has tended to dominate literary and cultural studies, this highly original and provocative collection of essays offers a radically new understanding of the relationship between art and the marketplace, one that celebrates the freedom of the individual author and the spontaneous order of modern culture. Bringing to bear the decisive insights of the Austrian school of economics on the practice of literary criticism, its contributors attempt nothing less than a revolution in our understanding of the western (and non-western) literary traditions. — Michael Valdez Moses, Duke University
This book is a radical test of the intellectual honesty and the intellectual courage of most contemporary literary scholars, critics, and theoreticians.  Would they have the intellectual honesty to recognize that this book has decisively refuted and exploded the conventional leftist anti-capitalist neomarxist foundations of the literary academy?  And would they have the intellectual courage to read this book in the first place, with its formidable scholarship, impeccable logic, and lucid frankness, when it would mean, given a positive answer to the first question, a pretty thorough rewriting of all of their lecture notes?  Who would have thought that one day Friedrich Hayek and Charles Darwin would unseat Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin as the imaginative sources of literary theory? — Frederick Turner, University of Texas at Dallas
Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers — but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics. — Allen Porter Mendenhall, Temple University
cantor literature and the economics of liberty
Meet the Author
Paul Cantor
Paul A. Cantor

Paul A. Cantor (1945–2022) was Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies.

Paul A. Cantor

The recent sale of an invisible statue for £13,000 is symptomatic of the thoroughgoing financialization of our economy. Investors have become ever more obsessed with the symbols of economic reality and less concerned with underlying economic facts.

View Paul A. Cantor bio and works

Mises Institute, 2009