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


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.


[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.