• 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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