“Who has not heard of the ‘horrors of early capitalism’ and gained the impression that the advent of this system brought untold new suffering to large classes who before were tolerably content and comfortable?  We might justly hold in disrepute a system to which the blame attached that even for a time it worsened the position of the poorest and most numerous class of the population. The widespread emotional aversion to ‘capitalism’ is closely connected with this belief that the undeniable growth of wealth which the competitive order has produced was purchased at the price of depressing the standard of life of the weakest elements of society.” – F. A. Hayek, Capitalism and the Historians

Often, critics of capitalism and free markets make the claim that capitalism is inhuman and destroys culture.  It is assumed that greedy, profit-seeking capitalists have no incentive to care about the flourishing of humanity, but rather are driven to exploit others in the process of accruing wealth.  But as Hayek wrote in Capitalism and the Historians, “the historical beliefs which guide us in the present are not always in accord with the facts.” As it turns out, if one actually examines the historical record, the truth about free markets and voluntary cooperation among individuals is evident, just waiting to be recounted.

Claudio Monteverdi

In the last quarter of the sixteenth century during the Renaissance, a new style of music began to emerge in the Italian city-states of Florence and Mantua.  Small circles of intellectuals and aristocrats experimented with a more emotional, affective way of singing that would eventually come to be known as opera.  This new music was solely meant for the
benefit and enjoyment of the nobility, and the first unofficial opera was performed at the Florentine wedding of Ferdinando de Medici in 1589.  In nearby Mantua, a young composer named Claudio Monteverdi was also developing this new style of singing for the Mantuan court.  By the first decade of the seventeenth century, Monteverdi had produced two major operas in Mantua, Orfeo in 1607 and Arianna in 1608.

However, because this music was restricted to the aristocracy, there was a small market for it.  The opportunities for composers to produce and promote their music were severely limited, as there were a finite number of courts that needed musicians. Even musicians with court appointments’ music was often halfheartedly appreciated by those who heard it, since the music would be produced for the court whether or not there was a strong demand for it.  The duke often did not pay Monteverdi what he was truly owed, and his words echo the disappointment he felt over the Mantuan music scene: “I have never in my life suffered greater humiliation of the spirit than when I had to go and beg the treasurer for what was mine.”  Deflated and defeated, Monteverdi left the Mantuan court and stopped writing operas, taking a safe position as the choir master at St. Mark’s Basilica.  Fortunately for Monteverdi (and all lovers of opera) something different was happening in Venice.

Venice during the early seventeenth century was a thriving commercial town.  Unlike in Florence and Mantua, the movers and shakers of Venetian society were not hereditary aristocrats, but a thriving class of merchant capitalists.  These capitalists, working out of self-interest and the profit motive, embraced opera in a different way than their Florentine and Mantuan neighbors.  Instead of enjoying opera amongst themselves, they decided to make opera a marketable public spectacle.  The first opera house opened in Venice in 1637, the second by 1640, and by 1678 there were nine full-time theaters in the city.  Each of these theaters often played to packed houses of nearly 1,500 Venetians of all social and economic classes. The music that had once been exclusive to the aristocracy became a diversion for merchants, soldiers, clerics, students, and the like. The strong demand for opera by the Venetian populace and the strong competition between so many public theaters attracted better composers and performers to Venice than had been in Florence or Mantua with their stagnant markets. Indeed, Venetian commercial opera became known for its flamboyant and extravagant staging, dramatic costumes and masks, and print advertisements called scenarios, all of which revolutionized the genre. Venice would remain a locus for opera well into the eighteenth century.

Teatro La Fenice of Venice

And what of Monteverdi?  After serving his long post as a church composer he was lured back into writing opera thanks to the emergence of Venice’s musical market in 1640, and at seventy-two years of age he performed his first opera in over thirty years.  In the final few years of his life, he would continue to compose and the last work of his career, L’incoronazione di Poppea, is considered by many musicologists to be the finest opera of the seventeenth century.  Perhaps this composition would never have existed had it not been for the development of the opera market in Venice.

Libertarians often feel compelled to defend the morality of free markets and voluntary transactions between individuals, but far too often we are on the defensive side of the debate.  However, free markets are more than just a moral good, they are facilitators of development and progress, promote egalitarianism in society, and foster the enrichment of culture.  As Hayek assessed, much of the antagonism to free markets in our present day stems from historical ignorance.  The task falls to those of us who know the truth to dispel this ignorance and resound a hearty “bravo” – for Monteverdi, for music, and for markets!