Nobel Conundrum: Economists vs. Authors

by Steve Sailer


National Post (of Canada), 10/15/99

The winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is Canadian free marketeer Robert Mundell, who proudly calls himself the "co-founder of supply side economics." The honoring of this guru of Reaganite "voodoo economics" has revived a long running controversy over possible political bias in the picking of the Economics and Literature Laureates.

Leftists complain that in recent decades the Economics prize has repeatedly gone to members of the libertarian Chicago School. Originally, enthusiasts for the market were treated warily. For example, Austrian arch-capitalist Friedrich Hayek had to share his 1974 prize with his enemy Swedish socialist Gunnar Myrdal, even though if one of the pair deserved the Nobel, the other, logically, did not. But the 1976 selection of Milton Friedman, the leader of the Chicago School, opened the floodgates. Of the 44 winners in Economics, 20 have been affiliated at some point in their career with the University of Chicago. Although now at Columbia U., Mundell, for example, did some of his most creative work at Chicago.

In contrast, rightists grumble that the Literature prize tends to go to left-of-center-authors. The last three honorees -- Guenter Grass, Jose Saramago, and the clownish Dario Fo -- were either outright Communists or at least Soviet sympathizers. Is some sort of schizophrenic bias at work? Or is there a profound difference in the way economists and authors must think about reality that leads the analytical right to emphasize reason, while the creative left focuses on compassion?

Both sides see themselves as victims of Nobel discrimination. For example, the Canadian-born leftist John Kenneth Galbraith, the most elegant prose stylist among 20th Century economists, has never won the Economics prize. Conversely, a host of brilliant conservative writers have been passed over: e.g., Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Tom Stoppard, Tom Wolfe, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Burgess, P.G. Wodehouse, V.S. Naipaul, Jack Kerouac, and John Updike. (You may never have noticed these gentlemen's politics -- in a literary world dominated by the center and left, conservatives tend to be discreet.) Of course, many fine leftist authors have also gone unhonored: e.g., Bertolt Brecht, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Atwood, Franz Fanon, James Baldwin, Graham Greene, and Arthur Miller. In short, the Swedish Academy makes so many knuckleheaded choices (e.g., in 1901 they could have given the first Nobel to Tolstoy, Twain, Chekhov, or Zola, but instead picked Sully Prudhomm), that the list of winners is less a pantheon of idiosyncratic genius and more a rather random sample of pretty good writers. Thus, it's safe to say that the lean to the left among Nobel Laureates for Literature is representative not of bias, but of a general pattern among fictioneers.

Why? The novelist or playwright is judged primarily by how intensely he enables the reader to emotionally identify with his main characters, by how he allows the reader to feel what it's like to be somebody else. The 18th Century's invention of the realistically detailed novel marked a leap forward in artists' ability to communicate what it feels like to be another human being. This has made us all more empathetic.

For example, if you were to read a first-rate novel about a single mother striving to keep her family together on the minimum wage, her particular pain would become so vivid to you that you couldn't help but sympathize with the idea that the minimum wage should be raised significantly. Now that you know precisely how hard it is to be a member of the working poor, how could you not feel that simple human compassion demands government intervention in the cruel marketplace?

Paradoxically, though, novels and movies have also stunted our moral imagination. It's easy to laud the novelist's vaunted insight into the human soul while denigrating the economist's dismal equations and utility curves. Surprisingly, though, free market economics asks of the reader a greater leap of empathetic imagination than does fiction. The economist can logically demonstrate that lifting the legal minimum above the market rate would help some lucky workers, but would also condemn many others to unemployment. But while the novelist or playwright can limn every care-worn line on the face of those suffering under the current low minimum wage, the economist can't show you the hypothetical, faceless victims of a proposed higher minimum. The economist can only ask you to imagine their suffering in a theoretical world.

Only one form of literature is equipped to deal with these alternate universes: science-fiction. A futuristic novel like George Orwell's "1984" demonstrates speculative fiction's vast potential for saving humanity from humanitarianism. But don't hold your breath waiting for lowly sci-fi novelists to win the Nobel Prize.

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