David Frum on commotion

this entry ported over from my now defunct LiveJournal website Nov. 28, 02

David Frum, yesterday in the National Post, called economic freedom “the first freedom.” He gives 3 reasons: that we must be able to express our “working, building, providing” aspect, that to override economic freedom is to step upon a slippery slope, it’s only a matter of time before freedoms of religion, speech and press will be compromised, and, finally, that control of economic activity expands governmental interference.

It’s a pretty standard argument. But two things surprised me. That we never hear the companion piece to this argument. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say that the abrogation of artistic liberties puts the economy at risk. Apparently, the slippery slope doesn’t slide in this direction.

The second thing that surprised: how “siloed” is this argument. It is true that ours if a culture that thinks about religion, artistic, economic and other domains as separate, distinct, and sometimes even mutually exclusive. It is also true that the social sciences and especially the Talcott Parsons period at Harvard helped to encourage this approach to the world. (Frum went to Harvard; maybe he got it there.)

What struck me though is how much these silos have in common, how similar are the freedoms in each domain. At a certain level, deep inside the thing itself, there is almost no difference between an artist, the entrepreneur and the religious enthusiast. All three are creating and responding to a deliberate unraveling of the world. They make a tear in the surface of the world, and then they fall through it. (More on this in Commotion 0.0.)

We recoil from this idea, largely because it confounds categories “work,” “art” and “devotion.” And our feeling of repugnance may be the operation of the principle that Mary Douglas reduced in Purity and Danger to the formula “the unclear is the unclean.” (Simplifying, when things that culture renders as distinct and separate are brought together, we react as if some notion of purity has been violated. Conceptual confusion provokes a sense of pollution.)

This might be a way to make the Frumian argument. But, again, the economic domain doesn’t want to claim fellowship with the artistic and religious ones. And one wonders whether this is because art looks like an exercise in self indulgence and the irrational, two things that economic man regards as especially dangerous to his construction of self and world. Too bad. It is, after all, one culture…even and especially in its post modern moment.