The (libertarian) economist Tyler Cowen poses an interesting question. I’m not much of a fiction reader, so I don’t know how to respond to this. But it’s a good question all the same, so I put it to the room. He’s responding to a Will Wilkinson remark that progressives do not favor “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility.” Cowen writes:

I would not quite say that progressives are “against such an ethos,” but where does it stand in their pecking order?  Look at fiction, such as famous left-wing or progressive novels, or for that matter famous left-wing and progressive movies.  How many of them celebrate “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility”?  Is there one?  Maybe as part of a broader struggle against a corrupt system or against “The Man,” but that tripartite of values is not celebrated in its own right.  Do any of these novels and films have business heroes?  To be sure, hard work from labor is celebrated, provided the workers are tough, exploited, but nonetheless hearty and worthy of respect.

I have no problem with praising these novels and movies for their celebrations of social justice, solidarity, or for their unveiling of corruption, but still it is a stretch to those values cited above.

I ceased being a regular filmgoer a decade ago, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of many well-known films that one would identify as having a liberal message that celebrate that ethos (even though individual liberals certainly may do so in their own lives). Can you? I think “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that sort of liberal film, but that was from 6o, 70 years ago. How about from the post-1960s era?

Beyond works of fiction, do liberals idealize initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility (which I take to mean “self-reliance,” “pulling your own weight”)? Note well the question is not “do liberals work hard and take responsibility”; the question is are these ideals celebrated by contemporary liberalism? There’s no principled reason that they should not be, though it doesn’t seem to work out that way, generally speaking.

Of course one might ask why conservatives, who do idealize these things, don’t apply these ideals to the financial class. But this is a question about liberals and liberalism. If you are liberal, please don’t be defensive and start pointing to the hypocrisies and insufficiencies of conservatism. Let’s do that in another post. I’d like to have a thoughtful discussion about liberalism, in light of Cowen’s remarks. Are they accurate? Are they fair?