Playing the part of Democratic rock star last week, President Barack Obama flew to a star-studded Hollywood party to raise $1 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Every election season Democratic candidates make a beeline to Hollywood for campaign contributions. This is understandable given Hollywood’s long-running romance with the liberal left.
During Obama’s presidential campaign, George Clooney expressed an urge to follow then candidate Obama around the room. Halle Berry, likewise, cooed: “I’ll do whatever he says to do.” Obama of course has a special hold on Hollywood, but he is by no means alone. Al Gore the “Goracle” receives a five-minute standing ovation every time he strolls onto Hollywood’s red carpet.
Many people have offered theories to explain Hollywood’s love affair with the Democratic Party, the most notable being Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago. He argued that Hollywood tends to have non-traditional views on social mores — high divorce rates, children out of wedlock, high presence of gays, frequent abortions, frequent drug use, premarital sex, etc. — that are incompatible with conservative values.
In other words, Hollywood likes Democrats because they support social freedom. But if Hollywood were consistent in its love of freedom, it would be turned off by Democrats’ economically repressive policies as much as it is turned off by Republicans’ socially repressive ones. After all, Democrats favor regulations on entrepreneurs and taxes on producers. Why does that not bother Hollywood? Why don’t more Hollywood figures explore other political possibilities such as libertarianism, which favors freedom in all domains?
I believe that’s because Hollywood has a deep distrust of free markets. That’s why, as George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok pointed out in the Wall Street Journal this June, Hollywood frequently portrays capitalists as villains in films: Erin Brockovich, Syriana, Mission Impossible II, Star Wars (yes, it’s true, Jaba the Hut is a literal business worm meant to represent commerce), The China Syndrome, Wall Street, the list continues.
But why is Hollywood so anti-free market? The clue lies in Harvard political philosopher Robert Nozick’s brilliant 1986 essay in which he examines a similar antipathy toward capitalism on the part of intellectuals (academics, novelists, literary critics, etc.).
Briefly, Nozick explained that intellectuals go through school being told that they are the most valued members of society and being rewarded by a central authority (the teacher) for their superiority. But their expectations of maintaining such status after graduation rarely come to fruition.
“By and large, a capitalist society does not honor its intellectuals.” By contrast, many of their peers who might have been academically inferior to them end up doing much better than them financially. When intellectuals see the market heaping lavish rewards on people below them in intellectual stature they form the idea that the world is unfair. Betrayed and humiliated, they become suspicious of capitalism and favor a more just, centrally-planned redistribution.
In Hollywood, personal merit and societal reward are correlated in the reverse way.
There is no reason to believe that Hollywood actors and actresses were anything beyond average members of society growing up. Most actors and actresses were probably drama geeks, neither exceptionally popular nor academically honored. Owen Wilson, for example, was expelled from high school in 10th grade after he stole his math teacher’s textbook in an attempt to cheat on his homework.
However, at the blink of an eye, these mere mortals are catapulted into stardom. Their economic standing is elevated to absurd levels and the world watches their every step as if they are God’s greatest gift to humanity. While they do not change, society’s perception of them goes from indifference to deification.
They wonder why they are so fascinating that the paparazzi need to document their morning trip to the supermarket. As Jim Carrey (a Robin Hood leftist) once said, “If my career in show business hadn’t panned out I would probably be working today in Hamilton, Ontario, at the Dofasco steel mill.”
Hollywood stars hence feel that there is something arbitrary about their success — that their personal merit does not warrant their revered status. While they may be pleased at this outcome, they can’t help but feel that the system is unjust because their status is undeserved. They watch people in the lower rungs of society struggle and become overcome by a deep sense of guilt for holding the winning ticket in the lottery of life. They distrust capitalism for the seemingly unfair inequality it produces and thus favor redistribution.
However, what Hollywood fails to realize is that markets allocate rewards not based on individual merit but on the value individuals produce for others. As Nozick said, “a capitalist society rewards people only insofar as they serve the market-expressed desires of others; it rewards in accordance with economic contribution, not in accordance with personal value.” This might seem counter-intuitive but, if you think about it, a system that rewards individuals for improving the lot of others is far fairer than one that rewards them for some arbitrary intrinsic quality.
Until Hollywood grasps this point, its guilt over its own success will continue to fuel its romance with Democrats.
Prateik Dalmia is an International Studies Major at the Johns Hopkins University.