Monday, March 10, 2008

Cultural Economics

There is a very interesting post out there that uses King Lear to show why people still read and watch Shakespeare:

[R]ules designed to enforce virtue tend to do the enforcing only against the poor and lowly. The wealthy and powerful . . . escape condemnation. The result is that those doing the punishing have hands as dirty as those who suffer the punishment.


This is a sadly familiar problem in the history of America’s culture wars. Vice crimes and morals offenses of all sorts—prostitution and gambling, liquor and drugs, abortion and sex crimes—have been enforced against blue-collar markets, not against upscale markets. That proposition helps explain the racial disparity in today’s drug prisoner population . . . .  A good deal of social science research suggests that people obey the law, when they do so, because the legal system seems fair and legitimate. Legal systems that hammer the sins of the poor while winking at the wrongs of the rich fall short of that standard.


Interestingly enough, [King Lear] not only diagnoses the relevant disease; it offers a hint at a cure—another, very different approach to cultural reform. Lear’s kingdom descends into chaos and civil war as those who rule it descend into deceit and barbarism. The remedy, the story implies, is not more virtuous laws, but more virtuous rulers.

He goes on to talk about how mass culture follows the example of elite culture ("It simply wasn’t possible to convince most Americans that buying a drink was a terrible wrong when the President of the United States served liquor to his poker buddies, as Warren Harding did in the early 1920s.")  It's an interesting post about whether or not you can legislate morality.

On a related note, what does this say about moral legislation and same-sex marriage?  How do politicians like Jim McGreevey play into all this?


Billy Edwards said...

Hey Jeremy,
Your dad told me about your blog, so I thought I'd say 'hey'. I kinda keep up with you through him - I make him buy me lunch.

Anyhow, I certainly no legal-type; I'm not even a real theolog-type, and nobody has ever accused me of brilliance...but aren't most laws somebody's morality? Whether it's "don't kill, don't pillage, don't sell booze to 17-year-olds, don't marry your same sex" - whatever.

Jeremy Masten said...

Hey Billy--good to hear from you. It's true that, generally, laws are basically government-enforced morality. So the real question is: which morals merit government enforcement? That only becomes an issue when crimes either don't harm anybody or only harm the criminal himself. From my experience, it seems like a good definition of when a legislature is "legislating morality" is whenever they're doing something you disagree with, whether that's criminalizing drug use or prohibiting same-sex marriage. I guess if somebody disagreed with the sanctity of human life, they could argue that murder laws are just "moral laws." But I'd hate to be that lawyer.