The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand: South Park and Libertarian Philosophy

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High
Philosophy and Low Comedy

The critics of South
Park
— and they are legion — bitterly complain about its
relentless obscenity and potty humor. And they have a legitimate
point. But if one wanted to mount a high-minded defense of the show's
low-minded vulgarity, one might go all the way back to Plato (427–347
bce) to find a link between philosophy and obscenity. Toward the
end of his dialogue Symposium,
a young Athenian nobleman named Alcibiades offers a striking image
of the power of Socrates. He compares the philosopher's speeches
to a statue of the satyr Silenus, which is ugly on the outside but
which, when opened up, reveals a beautiful interior: u201CIf you choose
to listen to Socrates' discourses you would feel them at first to
be quite ridiculous; on the outside they are clothed with such absurd
words and phrases. His talk is of pack-asses, smiths, cobblers,
and tanners, so that anyone inexpert and thoughtless might laugh
his speeches to scorn. But when these are opened, you will discover
that they are the only speeches which have any sense in them.u201D [1]

These words characterize equally well the contrast between the
vulgar surface and the philosophical depth of the dialogue in which
they are spoken. The Symposium contains some of the most
soaring and profound philosophical speculations ever written. And
yet in the middle of the dialogue the comic poet Aristophanes comes
down with a bad case of hiccoughs that prevents him from speaking
in turn. By the end of the dialogue, all the characters except Socrates
have consumed so much wine that they pass out in a collective drunken
stupor. In a dialogue about the spiritual and physical dimensions
of love, Plato suggests that, however philosophical we may wax in
our speeches, we remain creatures of the body and can never entirely
escape its crude bodily functions. In the way that the Symposium
moves back and forth between the ridiculous and the sublime, Plato
seems to be making a statement about philosophy — that it has something
in common with low comedy. Both philosophy and obscene humor fly
in the face of conventional opinion.

I'm
not sure what Plato would have made of South Park, but his
Silenus image fits the show quite well. South Park is at
one and the same time the most vulgar and the most philosophical
show ever to appear on television. Its vulgarity is of course the
first thing one notices about it, given its obsession with farting,
shitting, vomiting, and every other excretory possibility. As Plato's
dialogue suggests, it's all too easy to become fixated on the vulgar
and obscene surface of South Park, rejecting out of hand
a show that chose to make a Christmas icon out of a talking turd
named Mr. Hankey. But if one is patient with South Park,
and gives the show the benefit of the doubt, it turns out to be
genuinely thought provoking, taking up one serious issue after another,
from environmentalism and animal rights to assisted suicide and
sexual harassment. And, as we shall see, the show approaches all
these issues from a distinct philosophical position, what is known
as libertarianism, the philosophy of freedom. I know of no television
program that has so consistently pursued a philosophical agenda,
week after week, season after season. If anything, the show can
become too didactic, with episodes often culminating in a character
delivering a speech that offers a surprisingly balanced and nuanced
account of the issue at hand.

Plato's Symposium is useful for showing that vulgarity and
philosophical thought are not necessarily antithetical. Before dismissing
South Park, we should recall that some of the greatest comic
writers — Aristophanes, Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson,
Voltaire, Jonathan Swift — plumbed the depths of obscenity even
as they rose to the heights of philosophical thought. The same intellectual
courage that emboldened them to defy conventional proprieties empowered
them to reject conventional ideas and break through the intellectual
frontiers of their day. Without claiming that South Park
deserves to rank with such distinguished predecessors, I will say
that the show descends from a long tradition of comedy that ever
since ancient Athens has combined obscenity with philosophy. There
are almost as many fart jokes in Aristophanes' play The Clouds
as there are in a typical episode of The Terrance and Philip
Show in South Park. In fact, in the earliest dramatic
representation of Socrates that has come down to us, he is making
fart jokes as he tries to explain to a dumb Athenian named Strepsiades
that thunder is a purely natural phenomenon and not the work of
the great god Zeus: u201CFirst think of the tiny fart that your intestines
make. Then consider the heavens: their infinite farting is thunder.
For thunder and farting are, in principle, one and the same.u201D [2] Cartman couldn't have said it better.

Speaking the Unspeakable

Those
who condemn South Park for being offensive need to be reminded
that comedy is by its very nature offensive. It derives its energy
from its transgressive power, its ability to break taboos, to speak
the unspeakable. Comedians are always pushing the envelope, probing
to see how much they can get away with in violating the speech codes
of their day. Comedy is a social safety valve. We laugh precisely
because the comedian momentarily liberates us from the restrictions
that conventional society imposes on us. We applaud the comedian
because he says right out in front of an audience what, supposedly,
nobody is allowed to say in public. Paradoxically, then, the more
permissive American society has become, the harder it has become
to write comedy. As censorship laws have been relaxed, and people
have been allowed to say and show almost anything in movies and
television — above all to deal with formerly taboo sexual material
— comedy writers like the creators of South Park, Trey Parker
and Matt Stone, must have begun to wonder if there was any way left
to offend an audience.

The genius of Parker and Stone was to see that in our day a new
frontier of comic transgression has opened up because of the phenomenon
known as political correctness. Our age may have tried to dispense
with the conventional pieties of earlier generations, but it has
developed new pieties of its own. They may not look like the traditional
pieties, but they are enforced in the same old way, with social
pressures and sometimes even legal sanctions punishing people who
dare to violate the new taboos. Many of our colleges and universities
today have speech codes, which seek to define what can and cannot
be said on campus, and in particular to prohibit anything that might
be interpreted as demeaning someone because of his or her race,
religion, gender, handicap, and a whole series of other protected
categories. Sex may no longer be taboo in our society, but sexism
now is. Seinfeld was probably the first television comedy
that systematically violated the new taboos of political correctness.
The show repeatedly made fun of contemporary sensitivities about
such issues as sexual orientation, ethnic identity, feminism, and
handicapped people. Seinfeld
proved that being politically incorrect can be hilariously funny
in today's moral and intellectual climate, and South Park
was quick to follow its lead.

The show has mercilessly satirized all forms of political correctness
— anti-hate crime legislation, tolerance indoctrination in the schools,
Hollywood do-gooding of all kinds, including environmentalism and
anti-smoking campaigns, the Americans with Disabilities Act and
the Special Olympics — the list goes on and on. It's hard to single
out the most politically incorrect moment in the history of South
Park, but I'll nominate the spectacular u201Ccripple fightu201D in the
fifth season episode of that name — and indeed just look at the
politically incorrect name to describe what happens when two u201Cdifferently
abled,u201D or rather u201Chandi-capableu201D boys named Timmy and Jimmy square
off for a violent — and interminable — battle in the streets of
South Park. The show obviously relishes the sheer shock value of
moments such as this. But more is going on here than transgressing
the boundaries of good taste just for transgression's sake. This
is where the philosophy of libertarianism enters the picture in
South Park. The show criticizes political correctness in
the name of freedom.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

That
is why South Park is in fact an equal opportunity satirist;
it often makes fun of the old pieties as well as the new, savaging
both the right and the left insofar as they both seek to restrict
freedom. u201CCripple Fightu201D is an excellent example of the balance
and evenhandedness of South Park, and the way it can offend
both ends of the political spectrum. The episode deals in typical
South Park fashion with a contemporary controversy, one that
has even made it into the courts: whether homosexuals should be
allowed to lead Boy Scout troops. The episode makes fun of the old-fashioned
types in the town who insist on denying a troop leadership to Big
Gay Al (a recurrent character whose name says it all). It turns
out that the ostensibly straight man the Boy Scouts choose to replace
Big Gay Al is a real pedophile who starts abusing the boys immediately
by photographing them naked. As it frequently does, South Park,
even as it stereotypes homosexuals, displays sympathy for them and
their right to live their lives as they see fit. But just as the
episode seems to be simply taking the side of those who condemn
the Boy Scouts for homophobia, it swerves in an unexpected direction.
Big Gay Al himself defends the right of the Boy Scouts to exclude
homosexuals on the principle of freedom of association. An organization
should be able to set up its own rules and the law should not be
able to impose society's notions of political correctness on a private
group. This episode represents South Park at its best — looking
at a complicated issue from both sides and coming up with a judicious
resolution of the issue. And the principle on which the issue is
resolved is freedom. As the episode shows, Big Gay Al should be
free to be homosexual, but the Boy Scouts should also be free as
an organization to make their own rules and exclude him from a leadership
post if they want to.

Nothing could be more calculated to make South Park offensive
to the politically correct than this libertarianism, for if applied
consistently it would dismantle the whole apparatus of speech control
and thought manipulation that do-gooders have tried to construct
to protect their favored minorities. Libertarianism is a philosophy
of radical freedom, and particularly celebrates the free market
as a form of social organization. As a philosophy, it descends from
the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth-century,
social philosophers such as Adam Smith (1723–90), who argued for
free trade and the reduction of government intervention in the economy.
Libertarianism is especially grounded in the work of the Austrian
School of economics, and above all the writings of Ludwig von Mises
(1881–1973) and Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), who offer the most
uncompromising defense of unfettered economic activity as the key
to prosperity and progress. [3] The word libertarianism
was popularized by Murray Rothbard (1926–95), a student of Mises,
who developed the most radical critique of state interference in
economic and social life — a philosophy of freedom that borders
on anarchism. [4]

With its support for unconditional freedom in all areas of life,
libertarianism defies categorization in terms of the standard one-dimensional
political spectrum of right and left. In opposition to the collectivist
and anti-capitalist vision of the left, libertarians reject all
forms of economic planning and want people to be left alone to pursue
their self-interest as they see fit. But in contrast to conservatives,
libertarians also oppose social legislation, and generally favor
the legalization of drugs and the abolition of all censorship and
anti-pornography laws. Parker and Stone have publicly identified
themselves as libertarians, which might explain why their show ends
up offending both liberals and conservatives. As Parker has said:
u201CWe avoid extremes but we hate liberals more than conservatives,
and we hate them.u201D [5] This does seem to be an accurate assessment of the leanings
of the show — even though it is no friend of the right, South
Park is more likely to go after leftwing causes.

Defending
the Undefendable

Thus the libertarianism of Parker and Stone places them at odds
with the intellectual establishment of contemporary America. In
the academic world, much of the media, and a large part of the entertainment
business, especially the Hollywood elite, anti-capitalist views
generally prevail. [6]
Studies have shown that businessmen are usually portrayed in
an unfavorable light in movies and television. [7] South Park takes particular delight
in skewering the Hollywood stars who exploit their celebrity to
conduct liberal or leftwing campaigns against the workings of the
free market (Barbra Streisand, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, and
George Clooney are among the celebrities the show has pilloried).
Nothing is more distinctive about South Park than its willingness
to celebrate the free market, and even to come to the defense of
what is evidently the most hated institution in Hollywood, the corporation.
For example, in the episode u201CDie Hippie Die,u201D Cartman fights the
countercultural forces that invade South Park and mindlessly blame
all the troubles of America on u201Cthe corporations.u201D

Of all South Park episodes, u201CGnomesu201D offers the most fully
developed defense of capitalism, and I will attempt a comprehensive
interpretation of it in order to demonstrate how genuinely intelligent
and thoughtful the show can be. Like the episode u201CSomething Wall-Mart
This Way Comes,u201D u201CGnomesu201D deals with a common charge against the
free market — that it allows large corporations to drive small businesses
into the ground, much to the detriment of consumers. In u201CGnomesu201D
a national coffee chain called Harbucks — an obvious reference to
Starbucks — comes to South Park and tries to buy out the local Tweek
Bros. coffee shop. Mr. Tweek casts himself as the hero of the story,
a small business David battling a corporate Goliath. The episode
satirizes the cheap anti-capitalist rhetoric in which such conflicts
are usually formulated in contemporary America, with the small business
shown to be purely good and the giant corporation shown to be purely
evil. u201CGnomesu201D systematically deconstructs this simplistic opposition.

In the conventional picture, the small businessman is presented
as somehow being a public servant, unconcerned with profits, simply
a friend to his customers, whereas the corporation is presented
as greedy and uncaring, doing nothing for the consumer. u201CGnomesu201D
shows instead that Mr. Tweek is just as self-interested as any corporation,
and he is in fact cannier in promoting himself than Harbucks is.
The Harbucks representative, John Postem, is blunt and gruff, an
utterly charmless man who thinks he can just state the bare economic
truth and get away with it: u201CHey, this is a capitalist country,
pal — get used to it.u201D The great irony of the episode is that the
supposedly sophisticated corporation completely mishandles public
relations, navely believing that the superiority of its product
will be enough to ensure its triumph in the marketplace.

The common charge against large corporations is that, with their
financial resources, they are able to exploit the power of advertising
to put their small rivals out of business. But in u201CGnomes,u201D Harbucks
is no match for the advertising savvy of Mr. Tweek. He cleverly
turns his disadvantage into an advantage, coming up with the perfect
slogan in his circumstances: u201CTweek offers a simpler coffee for
a simpler America.u201D He thereby exploits his underdog position as
a small businessman, at the same time preying upon his customers'
nostalgia for an older and presumably simpler America. The episode
constantly dwells on the fact that Mr. Tweek is just as slick at
advertising as any corporation. He keeps launching into commercials
for his coffee, accompanied by soft guitar mood music and purple
advertising prose; his coffee is u201Cspecial like an Arizona sunrise
or a juniper wet with dew.u201D His son may be appalled by u201Cthe metaphorsu201D
(actually they're similes), but Mr. Tweek knows just what will appeal
to his nature-loving, yuppie customers.

u201CGnomesu201D
thus undermines any notion that Mr. Tweek is morally superior to
the corporation he's fighting, and in fact the episode suggests
that he may be a good deal worse. Going over the top as it always
does, South Park reveals that the coffee shop owner has for
years been overcaffeinating his son Tweek (one of the regulars in
the show) and is in fact responsible for the boy's hypernervousness.
Moreover, when faced with the threat from Harbucks, Mr. Tweek seeks
sympathy by declaring: u201CI may have to shut down and sell my son
Tweek into slavery.u201D It sounds as if his greed exceeds Harbucks'.
But the worst thing about Mr. Tweek is that he's not content with
using his slick advertising to compete with Harbucks in a free market.
Instead, he goes after Harbucks politically, trying to enlist the
government on his side to prevent the national chain from coming
to South Park. u201CGnomesu201D thus portrays the campaign against large
corporations as just one more sorry episode in the long history
of businessmen seeking economic protectionism — the kind of business/government
alliance Adam Smith wrote against in The
Wealth of Nations
. Far from the standard Marxist portrayal
of monopoly power as the inevitable result of free competition,
South Park shows that it results only when one business gets
the government to intervene on its behalf and restrict free entry
into the marketplace.

The Town of South Park vs. Harbucks

Mr. Tweek gets his chance when he finds out that his son and the
other boys have been assigned to write a report on a current event.
Offering to write the paper for the children, he inveigles them
into a topic very much in his self-interest: u201Chow large corporations
take over little family-owned businesses,u201D or, more pointedly, u201Chow
the corporate machine is ruining America.u201D Kyle can barely get out
the polysyllabic words when he delivers the ghostwritten report
in class: u201CAs the voluminous corporate automaton bulldozes its way
…u201D This language obviously parodies the exaggerated and overinflated
anti-capitalist rhetoric of the contemporary left. But the report
is a big hit with local officials and soon, much to Mr. Tweek's
delight, the mayor is sponsoring Proposition 10, an ordinance that
will ban Harbucks from South Park.

In the debate over Prop 10, u201CGnomesu201D portrays the way the media
are biased against capitalism and the way the public is manipulated
into anti-business attitudes. The boys are enlisted to argue for
Prop 10 and the man from Harbucks to argue against it. The presentation
is slanted from the beginning, when the moderator announces: u201COn
my left, five innocent, starry-eyed boys from Middle Americau201D and
u201COn my right, a big, fat, smelly corporate guy from New York.u201D Postem
tries to make a rational argument, grounded in principle: u201CThis
country is founded on free enterprise.u201D But the boys triumph in
the debate with a somewhat less cogent argument, as Cartman sagely
proclaims: u201CThis guy sucks ass.u201D The television commercial in favor
of Prop 10 is no less fraudulent than the debate. Again, u201CGnomesu201D
points out that anti-corporate advertising can be just as slick
as corporate. In particular, the episode shows that the left is
willing to go to any length in its anti-corporate crusade, exploiting
children to tug at the heartstrings of its target audience. In a
wonderful parody of a liberal political commercial, the boys are
paraded out in a patriotic scene featuring the American flag, while
the u201CBattle Hymn of the Republicu201D plays softly in the background.
Meanwhile, the announcer solemnly intones: u201CProp 10 is about children.
Vote yes on Prop 10 or else you hate children.u201D The ad is u201Cpaid
for by Citizens for a Fair and Equal Way to Get Harbucks Out of
Town Forever.u201D South Park loves to expose the illogic of
liberal and left-wing crusaders, and the anti-Harbucks campaign
is filled with one non-sequitur after another. Pushing the last
of the liberal buttons, one woman challenges the Harbucks representative:
u201CHow many Native Americans did you slaughter to make that coffee?u201D

Prop 10 seems to be headed for an easy victory at the polls until
the boys encounter some friendly gnomes, who explain corporations
to them. At the last minute, in one of the most didactic of the
South Park concluding message scenes, the boys announce to
the puzzled townspeople that they have reversed their position on
Prop 10. In the spirit of libertarianism, Kyle proclaims something
rarely heard on television outside of a John Stossel report: u201CBig
corporations are good. Because without big corporations we wouldn't
have things like cars and computers and canned soup.u201D And Stan comes
to the defense of the dreaded Harbucks: u201CEven Harbucks started off
as a small, little business. But because it made such great coffee,
and because they ran their business so well, they managed to grow
until they became the corporate powerhouse it is today. And that
is why we should all let Harbucks stay.u201D

At this point the townspeople do something remarkable — they stop
listening to all the political rhetoric and actually taste the rival
coffees for themselves. And they discover that Mrs. Tweek (who has
been disgusted by her husband's devious tactics) is telling the
truth when she says: u201CHarbucks Coffee got to where it is by being
the best.u201D Indeed, as one of the townspeople observes: u201CIt doesn't
have that bland, raw sewage taste that Tweek's coffee has.u201D u201CGnomesu201D
ends by suggesting that it is only fair that businesses battle it
out, not in the political arena, but in the marketplace, and let
the best product win. Postem offers Mr. Tweek the job of running
the local franchise and everybody is happy. Politics is a zero-sum,
winner-take-all game, in which one business triumphs only by using
government power to eliminate a rival, but in the voluntary exchanges
a free market makes possible, all parties benefit from a transaction.
Harbucks makes its profit, and Mr. Tweek can continue earning a
living without selling his son into slavery, but above all the people
of South Park get to enjoy a better brand of coffee.
[8]
Contrary to the anti-corporate propaganda normally coming
out of Hollywood, South Park argues that, in the absence
of government intervention, corporations get where they are by serving
the public, not by exploiting it. As Ludwig von Mises makes the
point:

The profit system makes those men prosper who have succeeded
in filling the wants of the people in the best possible and cheapest
way. Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers. The
capitalists lose their funds as soon as they fail to invest them
in those lines in which they satisfy best the demands of the public.
In a daily repeated plebiscite in which every penny gives a right
to vote the consumers determine who should own and run the plants,
shops and farms. [9]

The Great Gnome Mystery Solved

But
what about the gnomes, who, after all, give the episode its title?
Where do they fit in? I never could understand how the subplot in
u201CGnomesu201D related to the main plot until I was lecturing on the episode
at a summer institute and my colleague Michael Valdez Moses made
a breakthrough that allowed us to put together the episode as a
whole. In the subplot, Tweek complains to anybody who will listen
that every night at 3:30 a.m. gnomes sneak into his bedroom and
steal his underpants. But nobody else can see this remarkable phenomenon
happening, not even when the other boys stay up late with Tweek
to observe it, not even when the emboldened gnomes start robbing
underpants in broad daylight in the mayor's office. We know two
things about these strange beings: they are gnomes and they are
normally invisible. Both facts point in the direction of capitalism.
As in the phrase u201Cgnomes of Zurich,u201D which refers to bankers, gnomes
are often associated with the world of finance. In the first opera
of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the gnome Alberich
serves as a symbol of the capitalist exploiter — and he forges the
Tarnhelm, a cap of invisibility.
[10]
The idea of invisibility calls to mind Adam Smith's famous
notion of the u201Cinvisible handu201D that guides the free market. [11]

In short, the underpants gnomes are an image of capitalism and
the way it is normally — and mistakenly — pictured by its opponents.
The gnomes represent the ordinary business activity that is always
going on in plain sight of everyone, but which they fail to notice
and fail to understand. The people of South Park are unaware that
the ceaseless activity of large corporations like Harbucks is necessary
to provide them with all the goods they enjoy in their daily lives.
They take it for granted that the shelves of their supermarkets
will always be amply stocked with a wide variety of goods and never
appreciate all the capitalist entrepreneurs who make that abundance
possible.

What is worse, the ordinary citizens misinterpret capitalist activity
as theft. They focus only on what businessmen take from them — their
money — and forget about what they get in return, all the goods
and services. Above all, people have no understanding of the basic
facts of economics and have no idea of why businessmen deserve the
profits they earn. Business is a complete mystery to them — it seems
to be a matter of gnomes sneaking around in the shadows and mischievously
heaping up piles of goods for no apparent purpose. Friedrich Hayek
noted this long-standing tendency to misinterpret normal business
activities as sinister:

Such distrust and fear have … led ordinary people … to regard
trade … as suspicious, inferior, dishonest, and contemptible …
Activities that appear to add to available wealth, u201Cout of nothing,u201D
without physical creation and by merely rearranging what already
exists, stink of sorcery … That a mere change of hands should
lead to a gain in value to all participants, that it need not
mean gain to one at the expense of the others (or what has come
to be called exploitation), was and is nonetheless intuitively
difficult to grasp … Many people continue to find the mental feats
associated with trade easy to discount even when they do not attribute
them to sorcery, or see them as depending on trick or fraud or
cunning deceit. [12]

Even the gnomes do not understand what they are doing. Perhaps
South Park is suggesting that the real problem is that businessmen
themselves lack the economic knowledge they would need to explain
their activity to the public and justify their profits. When the
boys ask the gnomes to tell them about corporations, all they can
offer is this enigmatic diagram of the stages of their business:

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

Collect
Underpants

?

Profit

This chart basically encapsulates the economic illiteracy of the
American public. They can see no connection between the activities
businessmen undertake and the profits they make. What businessmen
actually contribute to the economy is a big question mark to them.
The fact that businessmen are rewarded for taking risks, correctly
anticipating consumer demands, and efficiently financing, organizing,
and managing production is lost on most people. They would rather
complain about the obscene profits of corporations and condemn their
power in the marketplace.

The u201Cinvisible handu201D passage of Smith's Wealth of Nations
reads like a gloss on the u201CGnomesu201D episode of South Park:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can
both to employ his capital in the support of domestick industry,
and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the
greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render
the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He genuinely,
indeed, neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows
how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestick
to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security,
and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce
may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and
he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand
to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it
always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By
pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society
more effectively than when he really intends to promote it. I
have never known much good done by those who affected to trade
for the publick good.
[13]

The
u201CGnomesu201D episode of South Park exemplifies this idea of the
u201Cinvisible hand.u201D The economy does not need to be guided by the
very visible and heavy hand of government regulation for the public
interest to be served. Without any central planning, the free market
produces a prosperous economic order. The free interaction of producers
and consumers and the constant interplay of supply and demand work
so that people generally have access to the goods they want. Like
Adam Smith, Parker and Stone are deeply suspicious of people who
speak about the public good and condemn the private pursuit of profit.
As we see in the case of Mr. Tweek, such people are usually hypocrites,
pursuing their self-interest under the cover of championing the
public interest. And the much-maligned gnomes of the world, the
corporations, while openly pursuing their own profit, end up serving
the public interest by providing the goods and services people really
want. In this rational justification of the free market, South
Park embodies the spirit of libertarian philosophy and challenges
the anti-capitalist mentality of much of Hollywood. Gnomes of the
world unite! You have nothing to lose but your bad image.

Notes

[1] Plato, Symposium, trans. by W.R.M. Lamb,
in Plato: Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1925), p. 239.

[2] Aristophanes, The
Clouds
, trans. by William Arrowsmith (New York: New American
Library, 1962), p. 45.

[3] Mises' most famous book is Human
Action: A Treatise on Economics
(New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1949) and Hayek's is The
Road to Serfdom
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1944).

[4] Rothbard articulates his libertarian philosophy
most fully in The
Ethics of Liberty
(New York: New York University Press,
2002) and For
a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
(New York: Macmillan,
1978). Perhaps the clearest introduction to the economic principles
underlying libertarianism is Henry Hazlitt's Economics
in One Lesson
(San Francisco: Laissez Faire Books, 1996),
originally published in 1946.

[5] As quoted in Brian C. Anderson, South
Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias

(Washington, DC: Regnery, 2005), p. 178.

[6] For an analysis of why such groups turn against
capitalism, see Ludwig von Mises, The
Anti-Capitalistic Mentality
(Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand,
1956) and especially pp. 30–3 for the turn against capitalism
in Hollywood.

[7] A perfect example of Hollywood's negative portrayal
of businessmen is the cruel banker Mr. Potter in the classic It's
a Wonderful Life
(dir. Frank Capra, 1946). For a comprehensive
survey of the portrayal of businessmen in American popular culture,
see the chapter u201CThe culture industry's representation of businessu201D
in Don Lavoie and Emily Chamlee-Wright, Culture
and Enterprise: The Development, Representation and Morality of
Business
(London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 80–103. Here are
some representative figures from media studies: u201COf all the antagonists
studied in over 30 years of programming, businessmen were twice
as likely to play the role of antagonist than any other identifiable
occupation. Business characters are nearly three times as likely
to be criminals, relative to other occupations on television.
They represent 12 percent of all characters in identifiable occupations,
but account for 32 percent of crimes. Forty-four percent of all
vice crimes such as prostitution and drug trafficking committed
on television, and 40 percent of TV murders, are perpetrated by
business peopleu201D (p. 84).

[8] Not being a coffee drinker myself, I cannot comment
on the question of whether Starbucks is actually better than any
particular local brew. I am simply presenting the situation as
it is laid out in u201CGnomes,u201D but I realize that the issue of Starbucks
coffee is controversial. In fact, no episode of South Park
I have taught has raised as much raw passion, indignation, and
hostility among students as u201CGnomesu201D has. I'm not sure why, but
I think it has something to do with the defensiveness of elitists
confronted with their own elitism. What many intellectuals hold
against capitalism is precisely the fact that it has made available
to the masses luxuries formerly reserved to an elite, including
their double lattes. I have heard every tired argument against
capitalism raised with regard to Starbucks, including the old
canard that the company lowers prices to drive out the local competition
with the aim of then raising prices once it has a monopoly. Since
the barriers to entry in the coffee business are very low, of
course Starbucks has never reached that monopoly position and
never will.

[9] Mises, Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, p.
2.

[10] George Bernard Shaw offers this interpretation
of Alberich; see his The
Perfect Wagnerite
(1898) in George Bernard Shaw, Major
Critical Essays (London: Penguin, 1986), pp. 198, 205.

[11] For the way H.G. Wells uses invisibility as
a symbol of capitalism, see my essay u201CThe Invisible Man
and the Invisible Hand: H.G. Wells's Critique of Capitalism,u201D
American Scholar 68 (1999), pp. 89–102.

[12] F.A.
Hayek, The
Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism
(Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 90, 91, 93.

[13] Adam Smith, An Enquiry into the Nature and
Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics,
1981), p. 456.

December
4, 2006

Paul
A. Cantor [send him mail]
is Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author
of Gilligan
Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization
.
Hear and
see him on Mises
Media
.

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