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In the wake of the financial crisis, it has become commonplace to say that the capitalist world will have to rethink the free market. In particular, it's suggested that we will have to increase limits on people's behaviour, because excessive freedom in some areas (speculation) has undermined other things we care about (a functioning credit system).

Is it plausible that this re-evaluation might have a knock-on effect on intellectual and artistic life? Might there be a return to a more paternalistic way of managing not only money, but also culture? Might people rethink whether the unrestricted market necessarily leads society to the best kind of art, television, books and magazines - any more than it leads us to the best sort of housing schemes or investment funds?

Throughout the 20th century, financial regulation waxed and waned pretty much in parallel with its cultural counterpart. The period from 1929 to 1980 saw increased restrictions in both spheres, while in the latter part of the century safeguards were widely and boldly dismantled in an analogous bid for freedom. It doesn't seem implausible to connect John Reith's regulations for the BBC (put in place in the decade after 1926) with Roosevelt's reregulation of the financial system in the New Deal - just as one might draw links between the "Big Bang" in the City in 1986 and the ending of the Net Book Agreement in UK publishing in 1995.

We trust ourselves to be living in a functioning democracy of ideas, where all thoughts have a chance to play themselves out on a level playing-field. The modern free world takes pride in the independence of its newspapers, publishers, radio stations and television channels, contrasting these with their appalling fascist and communist equivalents. We know we must ensure cultural liberty because of human fallibility: to restrict ideas is to increase the danger of a few corrupt ideas growing dominant, a monopoly here being as dangerous as one in the provision of goods and services. This intellectual commitment to liberty is seemingly backed up practically by the fact that anyone can today publish a book, make a film or run a blog.

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December 21st, 2008
6:12 PM
Exquisitely apposite.

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