Bryan Caplan  

Idolatry in a Free Society

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I've spent several days reflecting on my chairman's reaction to public grief over Michael Jackson's death:
I, for one, am no more touched by Mr. Jackson's death than I am by the death of any of the thousands of other Americans who died last week, all of whom - like Mr. Jackson - are strangers to me and to the vast majority of people now so self-indulgently and flamboyantly grieving for a man they never met.

Americans' proclivity to mass hysteria causes me to want government to have as little power as possible.  I neither can nor wish to stop other persons from doing with their lives as they wish.  But I also damn sure despise the fact that, through their votes, so many persons prone to such childish sentiments and displays have a say in how I lead my life.
I agree with Don Boudreaux's basic point: If people get hysterical about a man they never met, it seems dangerous to put real power in their hands.  At the same time, though, it's worth pointing out that this particular manifestation of "mass hysteria" is not only understandable, but benign. 

Understandable: Michael Jackson's music really did touch the lives of millions of people.  Sure, they didn't personally know him, but who doesn't feel a connection to one impressive stranger or another?  I never met Julian Simon, but I feel his loss.  The story of the architect of Hitler's failed assassination brings tears to my eyes.  I'd be ever-so-happy for Emily Whitehurst if she became a superstar.  What's so bad about these feelings-at-a-distance?

Benign: If people have the kinds of emotional needs that Don criticizes, what is the best - or least bad - way to express them?  They could express them in politics, with the usual awful results.  They could express them in religion, with results that are at best mixed.  Or they could express them by idolizing singers, movie stars, novelists, bloggers, etc.  It's hard to see the downside.

I'd actually go further: Fandom would play an important role in a free society.  What role?  Harmlessly dissipating the emotions that, wrongly directly, lead to dangerous hysterias.  In fact, as Tyler Cowen explains in his unjustly neglected What Price Fame?, idolatry serves as a non-cash payment to the creative geniuses who give us far more than we pay them.  Samuel Johnson once wisely observed that, "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money."  I'd like to add that "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently hysterical than in grieving over a celebrity."

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Brent Buckner writes:

c.f. "market for partisanship"

Standard arguments regarding venting versus growing the habit apply.

Sam Wilson writes:

I'm not entirely convinced that hysteria has a downward-sloping demand curve. I agree with what both you and Don have written on the subject (though I confess I prefer his eulogy to the great Billy Mays to his condemnation of wailing Jackson fans), I don't think I necessarily agree that fandom harmless dissipates sentiments that could be otherwise channeled for odious purposes. Indeed, hysteria appears to be a tempestuous phemonenon: it requires a positive feedback loop and can be steered in dangerous directions by unscrupulous agents.

I'm reminded of the backlash against paparazzi following Lady Diana's death. Or the Brady Bill.

Then again, I'm also not convinced that there really was all that much hysteria surrounding Jackson's death. The one thing media outlets do well is cherrypick. Even the supposed suicides strike me as extremely suspect: my suspicion is that these folks were on the cusp already and just took the opportunity to do what they've already been contemplating.

One more thing... did you mean to write "wrongly directly" in the third sentence of your last paragraph or "wrongly directed"?

Les writes:

I feel grateful for the music of Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven, although I never knew or venerated them.

I am grateful for the innovations of Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur and many others who gave us valuable technologies, although I never knew or venerated these people.

I am grateful for the works of Adam Smith, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and many other geniuses upon whose shoulders we stand, including the U.S. Constitution given to us by our founding fathers, although I never knew or venerated them.

To my mind it is the great achievements and valuable legacies that are to be gratefully appreciated, but it is difficult for me to venerate people I never met - or pop stars who are likely to be forgotten in less than a decade.

Phil writes:

What scares me -- and is this the point Bryan was trying to make? -- is that a populace that can make Michael Jackson an idol is a populace that can make Barack Obama an idol. Obama was revered even before the election, even by those who couldn't name a single policy he supported.

A personality cult allows an elected leader to do a lot more damage. For that reason alone, I'd be willing to bet that Obama will have done a lot more bad things in his term than George W. Bush did in his.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

There was a time when coverage of celebrities was confined to gossip columns or to shows such as "Entertainment Weekly"; and with the exception of a special few, i.e. Bob Hope, network news would devote no more than a few paragraphs to the passing of a celebrity.

The death of Princess Diana changed all that. It seemed that people couldn't get enough of it; and cable news stations realized that if they didn't get on board, they were going to lose market share.

Over time, the never-ending coverage of celebrities in all forms of the media has caused many people to create relationships where in reality none truly exist; and as a result, we have over-the-top responses to just about everything celebrities do.

Politicians are beginning to discover that behaving like celebrities attracts attention. The decision to vote for politicians are increasingly becoming based more upon style than substance.

RL writes:

To The Cupboard Is Bare:

Don't you think the 24 hour cable news cycle also played a significant role?

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Hi RL,

Perhaps at that late (early) hour, I didn't express myself well enough. But yes, the 24 hour cable news cycle definitely fuels the frenzy as there is a need to fill up a lot of air time with information.

As someone who was at the time laid up and awake at all hours while awaiting back surgery, I found that there was no escaping the media's coverage of Princess Diana's death. It's not as if I was unsympathetic to the tragedy and the impact that it must have had on her family, but I found that the never-ending recycling of the same news clips and rehashing of the facts was mind numbing, to say the least.

Bob Murphy writes:

For what it's worth, Bryan, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, idolatry is the most serious sin you can do (in the sense that it violates the first commandment). I'm not saying it should be a crime, but I'm not so complacent about it as you are.

Benson writes:

Hi Professor Bryan,

Happy Independence Day.

I’d like to add to your observations. The "Idolatry" hysteria isn’t just an American phenomenon but applies to most societies. Basically I think such celebrity based mass hysteria could be mostly about the herd instincts hardwired in most of us. And it is unlikely too about the non-tangible rewards for creative geniuses. While some of the hysteria could be attributed to strictly diehard fandom, many, if not most, could simply be due to “faddish” or social pressures. We can segregate genuine fandom from fads years after a celebrity’s demise.

For the bandwagon effect, the possible incentives that may drive individuals to the celebrity hysteria could be because:
-it’s a talking point, for social circles, that’s simply too great to pass up or resist.
-it’s an IN thing-where some would feel the need to be seen as part of a memorable social event
-it’s has partly been transformed by media into a morality event-where shows appear to be dressed up as “tributes”, but are simply “themes of the moment” to meant to capture, capitalize and compound mass sentiment or hysteria.

And this dynamic isn't confined to celebrities but to the political sphere too.

Great stuff you guys have here.



Monte writes:

Idols are primarily the offspring of sports, entertainment, and politics. Obviously, we need only concern ourselves with those who run for office. But idolizing politicians, according to Dr. Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., is largely a liberal phenomenon. In his book, The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness, Rossiter claims liberals are very much “like spoiled, angry children. They rebel against the normal responsibilities of adulthood and demand that a parental government meet their needs from the cradle to the grave.” He further suggests that “the liberal agenda preys on weakness and feelings of inferiority in the population by creating and reinforcing perceptions of victimization; satisfying infantile claims of entitlement, indulgence and compensation; augmenting primitive feelings of envy; rejecting the sovereignty of the individual and subordinating him to the will of the government.”

There may be few ways in which a man can be more innocently hysterical than in grieving over a celebrity, but there are many ways in which he can impact our lives if he votes for one.

Alex writes:

On this blog and in his recent book, Dr. Caplan argues that voters vote on the basis of systematically biased beliefs about economic policy, and that increasing voter education over recent decades has not ameliorated this problem.

A commenter above says, "The decision to vote for politicians are increasingly becoming based more upon style than substance." Given Dr. Caplan's findings, shouldn't we be happy about this trend (if indeed it is happening)? After all, if politicians discover that they can win election by generating an emotional hysteria around themselves and their candidacies, then they may not have to appeal to voters' irrational economic beliefs.

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