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Sunday, October 1, 2006

We Need Multimedia Economics Teaching

Earlier this year I was invited to give a talk at an art gallery in Georgetown, the posh area of Washington, D.C., down the street from the White House, abutting the Potomac River. I confess this doesn’t happen to me very often. Okay, I exaggerate—it never happens to me. This was my first invitation ever to speak at an art gallery.

The occasion was an evening of entertainment sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). IHS was trying out a new approach to communicating the virtues of liberty and free markets. It had rented the gallery for the night and put on display work by Morgan Ashcom, a fine-arts major at George Mason University who is interested in liberty and economics. Morgan spoke briefly about how he had become interested in economics (he credited a phenomenal GMU teacher—Tom Rustici) and described the work that was hanging nearby—a set of photographs surrounded by notes from classic works on liberty (quotes from Hayek, Friedman, Sowell, and others), along with a sculpture and a short film that both captured the power of liberty and the threat of totalitarian oppression.

Morgan was followed by Ben Parizek, who sang folk songs he had written about the virtues of spontaneous order and the lack of virtue to be found in the life of Che Guevara. Both Morgan and Ben were very inspiring. I closed the evening with a reading from the book I’m currently working on.

The event was marred and enhanced at the same time by an unscheduled speaker. After Morgan had finished describing what he was trying to achieve in his art, he asked if anyone had any questions.

A man in the back of the room raised his hand and was recognized. Rather than ask a question, he proceeded to make a speech. He opened by making a few brief remarks about Morgan’s dedication and persistence in making sure the works were presented the way he intended them to be seen. It turns out he was the owner of the gallery. He explained how he and Morgan had spent hours hanging the photographs to make them look appealing.

Having expressed his respect for Morgan, he launched into what can only be described as a diatribe against the ideas that Morgan was trying to portray, particularly concerning capitalism and the way it treats the poor. He wanted us to know that the quotes surrounding the photographs were dangerous—they might lead people to think that capitalism was a good thing. It wasn’t, he explained. Americans, especially the poor, were oppressed by corporations and capitalism. Besides, he added, America wasn’t a capitalist country anyway. He also wanted the assembled people to know that capitalism required unemployment of at least 6 percent (I think that was the number he chose) at least until Bill Clinton showed how it could actually be less than 4 percent.

It was a fascinating and awkward moment. Most if not all the people in the audience were passionate believers in free markets. How would they respond? Would they shout the man down? Angrily denounce his comments with their own diatribes? Politely disagree and marshal the case against the views he had outlined?

We did nothing. We said nothing. I quietly ignored the counterarguments and facts that leaped into my mind. Others must have done the same thing. The organizer of the event thanked the owner for his comments and went on to the next raised hand. It was as if the interruption hadn’t happened at all. I suspect that the decision by each of us individually to refrain from responding was a combination of politeness and pragmatism. There was no need to voice a defense of capitalism—those arguments spoke loudly through the words and pictures that Morgan had so artfully combined.

For me the episode was also a reminder of how far we have to go in clearly explaining economics and claiming the moral high ground for liberty. Here was a guy who had spent a lot of time with this talented and thoughtful student. And yet he viewed his artwork as dangerous. Here were these photographs surrounded by the words of Hayek, Friedman, and Sowell, and they had no impact on opening his mind to an alternative worldview.

In a way it was the ultimate compliment to the artist. The owner of the gallery viewed the art as being sufficiently provocative that it had to be denounced. I was also reminded of the graduate students in social work I had once taught who also believed that capitalism needed a reserve army of unemployed to function—a strange view that misunderstands how unemployment is defined and measured in government statistics. Theirs was a Marxist interpretation that presumed that everyone who was measured as unemployed was desperately out of work for a long period of time. In fact, zero unemployment is essentially impossible the way government defines it—anyone who is looking for a job and doesn’t find one immediately is defined as unemployed.

Interestingly, we all shared one point of complete agreement—that America was not a true capitalist society. The disagreement was over where to go from here—toward more freedom or away from it.

Lots to Do

But the real lesson I took away from the evening is how hard it is get people to understand economics. We have lots to do, and we need more Morgan Ashcoms and Ben Parizeks, people who work outside the printed page, our time-honored medium for explaining how markets operate and the virtues of freedom. Books and articles and words are wonderful, and we need more of them. But they do not speak to everyone. To reach a wider audience, we need more art exhibits, more folk songs, more rock songs, more operas, and a lot more movies. Maybe if that gallery owner knew a few more Morgan Ashcoms and listened to a few more Ben Parizeks, he might be able to imagine that at least those of us who long for an America with more economic freedom are not monsters to be denounced.

This is my last column as a regular columnist for The Freeman. I’ve been doing this for seven years, and it’s time for me to move on to other things and to give someone else a chance to put this space to good use. I’ve enjoyed talking with you, the readers of The Freeman, and hope you’ll stay in touch. And I’m grateful to both Beth Hoffman and Sheldon Richman for wonderful editing over the years, and to Don Boudreaux, who got me involved in the first place.

  • Russell Roberts the host of the weekly podcast, EconTalk and co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. His latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. He is also a John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University"s Hoover institution.