WHAT PRICE FAME?

NONFICTION BY TYLER COWEN

Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674001159
What would motivate a person to launch a destructive computer virus, commit a mass murder, receive counseling on national television, or show video of highly personal activities over the Internet? The answer, of course, is fame. In the quest to get noticed and stand out from the crowd people compromise taste, personal integrity and morality. 
     But like the profit motive, the desire to gain acclaim has driven people to create and accomplish great things, not just in the realms of art, literature, music, and athletics, but also in the fields of science and technology. The lure of fame has led to the erosion of cultural institutions and the separation of fame and merit, but only because the mass of people ceased to value scientific, technological, and artistic accomplishments. 
     This is a critical point missed by Tyler Cowen in What Price Fame? An economist at George Mason University, Mr. Cowen blames the free market system for the deterioration of cultural institutions and the separation of fame and merit. “The modern world,” he writes, “generates fame without requiring consensus on which performers are most meritorious. The decentralization of our market economy allows production—including the production of fame—to proceed without an overall plan. As markets distribute fame more widely and more diversely, most fame rewards will stand apart not only from merit but from any particular standard.” 
     In Mr. Cowen’s judgment, markets should correct, or at least not exacerbate the lack of individual tastes, values, and judgment responsible for the separation of fame and merit. The market, however, should not be expected to give people an appreciation for art, and it should not be expected to compensate for people’s propensity to adopt the likes and dislikes of the crowd. The role of the market is to satisfy desires, not parent against them. 
     Mr. Cowen believes that the separation of fame and merit is the price we pay for modern democracy. This belief is based on a deterministic view that the mass of people will always have poor and undeveloped tastes. He overlooks the very real possibility that moral and aesthetic values could improve. The way moral and aesthetic standards could improve is through the abolition of compulsory government schooling. 
     In the United States and most other industrialized nations, the state has a virtual monopoly on education at the grammar and high school levels and a stranglehold on education at the university level. Insulated from the competitive process, the state provides a substandard level of education. People have blamed the state’s education monopoly for high levels of scientific illiteracy and poor English composition skills, but have largely dismissed its role in driving down moral and aesthetic standards. 
     In state run compulsory schools children are taught to reject objective standards. For instance, children are taught that the fantastic paintings, drawings and sculptures of Leonardo da Vinci are no better or no worthier of discussion than the “pop art” of Andy Warhol. This attitude toward art extends to literature, music, athletics, architecture, etc. 
     Many people blame the media for the public’s poor tastes. The media, however, has little influence on individuals who think independently. Its influence is primarily on those susceptible to psychological conditioning and indoctrination—those educated in government controlled schools. Since the state takes on the role of educating and cultivating the minds of children, it must accept the responsibility for the decline in moral and aesthetic standards, just as it must accept the responsibility for high levels of scientific illiteracy and poor English composition skills. Until or unless people are free of compulsory government schooling for a long period of time, we cannot know how great of a capacity the average person has to identify, appreciate and reward musical, literary, artistic, scientific and business accomplishments. 
     But regardless of whether putting an end to compulsory government schooling would improve our culture and polity, efforts to raise moral and aesthetic standards through subsides and tax deductions are not morally justified. Groups and collectives do not have the right to use public money to advance the careers of individuals they think are worthy of acclaim. Furthermore, government fine tunings of the fame market, as Mr. Cowen correctly points out, are unlikely to succeed. So for now, the separation of fame and merit is the price we pay, not for democracy, or for capitalism, but for the doctrine of cultural relativism and the institution responsible for its inculcation.