The Limits of Liberty

We should demand more cultural regulation to help us to focus on the best thoughts and words

Art Economy Literature Media Modern Life Philosophy Publishing

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.

But this is only true until one has a go at trying to propagate ideas in any authoritative way, for it’s then that one realises that what we see, read and hear is continually monitored and shaped according to some powerful and inflexible economic imperatives. Take advertising: it won’t escape the notice of any inhabitant of a large city that the thoughts which greet us in public places are overwhelmingly interested in directing our attention to the advantages of consuming deodorants, airline flights and blockbuster films. If we really lived in a free market of ideas, we should expect that we would occasionally hear a public defence of kindness or a paean to the wise aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius, but we don’t, for the obvious reason that few gentle Buddhists or stalwart Stoics have the £100,000 necessary to start an effective ad campaign. Try to interest a TV commissioning editor in a film about deforestation in Sudan and you will politely be told that a little more grit, sex and glamour might be an idea. The same logic plays itself out in radio stations and publishing houses. Our world gives us unparalleled freedom to express ourselves – and yet also an unparalleled freedom to be ignored unless our message is precisely tailored to fit some punishingly narrow categories.

It was from an awareness of the danger of such a situation that the notion of artistic and intellectual subsidy was first formed in the 1920s. As the defenders of regulation put it, the economic free market simply could not be relied upon to generate a diverse and appropriate market in ideas and art. Unfettered, the culture rewarded by the economic free market would relentlessly pull us towards our baser appetites. A further claim was made that this phenomenon would be risky for the whole of society. It would vulgarise us, enhance our crooked impulses, corrupt our children and change our behaviour. A crass culture would make us into crass people.

However, in the later part of the 20th century, such warnings came to seem both hysterical and untrue. Just as one could relax exchange controls and still survive (indeed thrive), so one might relax a range of cultural controls. Governments therefore set about systematically dismantling much of the public-service requirements of the Reithian regime at the BBC. ITV channels were set free of their regulatory demands. It was argued that Channel 4 could forgo public money and fund itself by reality shows instead. Meanwhile in publishing, rules on who could sell a book and at what price were thrown aside to allow the market to rule without restriction. The results of such manoeuvres are now everywhere apparent. We need only cast an eye on tonight’s television schedules and the top sellers promulgated by that most powerful force in British bookselling, Tesco’s supermarket.

Of course, our society hasn’t given up on the idea of regulation in all areas. We don’t have unrestricted freedom in the drugs industry because we feel that the wrong kind of drugs can very badly damage your health. But we do have a freedom in ideas, because we don’t in the end believe that very much is at stake. We could quite easily watch a lifetime of dubious television while remaining entirely sane and healthy people. If we’re reading dross, so be it.

It always comes as a surprise, therefore, to read Plato on this topic, for what marks out the Greek philosopher is his extraordinary belief that the wrong kind of ideas can ruin your life. Watch bad plays, listen to silly music, read cynical books and your soul will be corrupted. This is the thrust of Socrates’ famous defence of cultural censorship in The Republic. “The voicing of these [corrupt views] is sacrilege, they do us no good,” says Socrates. “We must oversee the work of story writers, accepting any good stories they write and rejecting all the others.” Socrates argues that just as we wouldn’t allow a nurse to tell corrupt stories to children, so in the ideal state, we must take extreme care with what people are able to hear and see.

I’m starting to have a little more time for Socrates on this topic. Would it not be wise to reconsider the impact of cultural deregulation and return to some of the safeguards which once gave us the high quality of public culture that is now sorely lacking? In broadcasting, the BBC could without too much difficulty be retooled so that it focused only on disseminating what Matthew Arnold famously called “the best that has been thought and said in the world” (Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand would go to ITV), while Channel 4 could with little cost to the taxpayer and a few adjustments to its charter be returned to its former glories. Meanwhile in publishing, the Net Book Agreement could be put back in place along with a German-style mechanism of regulated bookselling, which has produced not only the finest bookshops but also the most commercially robust publishing houses in the world.

Such moves would of course involve a reduction in liberty of one kind – but as has often been pointed out, you can’t have all liberties at once. You can’t have both the freedom to generate maximal income and the freedom to enjoy decent culture. The financial crisis has taught us that the promotion of one kind of liberty always involves the restriction of another.