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On the Value of Being a Producer

Bas van der Vossen and I have a book, In Defense of Openness, forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2018.

Here’s a short excerpt from the penultimate chapter discussing the value of being a producer.

…In the 1990s film version of Great Expectations, protagonist Finn, then a young boy, encounters an escaped convict. He decides to feed the convict and gives him tools to remove his bonds. Years later, Finn becomes an artist. Not only do his paintings sell, but he sells every painting he puts in gallery. In the end, Finn learns that his paintings were all purchased by one collector—who turns out to be the escaped convict, now rich. In fact, Finn’s entire career is just a façade created by the convict to, in a sense, repay a debt.

When Finn learns this, he isn’t delighted to discover that he lives in a world of communal reciprocity. He isn’t delighted to discover that this his good deeds have been rewarded. On the contrary, if anything, he’s devastated. When Finn discovers the convict has been buying his art, he thereby learns that he, Finn, is a failure.

Finn wants other people to want his art for their own selfish reasons. He hopes others will want to buy it with their hard-earned money not as a favor to him, but because they believe the art is excellent and will enhance their own lives. He doesn’t want his customers to think, “Well, Finn, we don’t care for your art, but we want you to feel good about yourself and your little hobby, so out of our concern for you as an end in yourself, we’re buying your art.” That attitude expresses respect for Finn as a stomach, but not as an artist. What Finn craves is recognition, and he can’t get that unless his art is selling because the customers want it for themselves.

Sure, Finn wants to eat. Perhaps given the choice between A) being utterly destitute, or B) being paid to make art for people who don’t actually like the art, he’d pick B. But Finn wants a good life, not just a life. For most of us, having a good life means making our own way in the world. We want to be able to produce for others such that, in the end, we can say the world was better off with us than without us.

That thought probably applies to professional plumbers, auto mechanics, nurses, and philosophers. We don’t just want people to consume what we make as a way of letting us play at being good at our jobs. We want to actually be good at our jobs. Doing so means that people are willing to buy what we offer for their sakes, not ours. In virtue of acting on such selfish motives, our buyers do us a different of favor: they thereby show we’re making a real contribution, not just being tricked into thinking we’re contributing.

We’re not invoking this point in order to argue against the welfare state, though it is a consideration against make-work projects. (Make-work projects are a kind of Truman Show; they trick workers into believing, falsely, that they’re mostly contributing rather than just mostly receiving.) Rather, our point is just that for most of us, part of what it means to live well is not only to be fed but to help feed others, to make the world better off rather than worse off by our presence.[i]

[i] In Why Not Socialism?, G. A. Cohen claims that utopian, if not realistic, socialism realizes what he calls the “the principle of communal reciprocity,” which is “the antimarket principle in which I serve you not because of what I can get in return by doing so, but because you need or want my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.”(Cohen 2009, 39) Cohen doesn’t imagine utopian socialists to be selfless, so he means here a principle in which one person serves another not simply out of self-interest but also out of a desire to serve others. Cohen of course provides no philosophical argument that this principle is somehow incompatible with markets or capitalism, and he provides no empirical evidence that this attitude is found less in market society than in socialist or non-market societies. (On the contrary, as Jason has pointed out in a number of papers, it appears this attitude appears more in market societies than elsewhere. See Brennan 2014, Brennan 2015, Brennan 2016.) We invoke Cohen here to illustrate that the personal value of being a contributor is not a value unique to capitalist or market ideologies. Indeed, Cohen likes it so much he seems to think it’s incompatible with market ideologies.

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  • Rob Gressis

    First, I really liked that point about Great Expectations. It’s one of the first times I’ve seen any libertarian philosopher outside of Rand try to take what looks like the moral high ground and sincerely mean it. Well done!

    Second, though, you write this: “We’re not invoking this point in order to argue against the welfare state, though it is a consideration against make-work projects. (Make-work projects are a kind of Truman Show; they trick workers into believing, falsely, that they’re mostly contributing rather than just mostly receiving.)” Don’t most proponents of make-work projects claim that such projects *do* contribute? Isn’t the idea the old Keynesian one that the way out of recessions is via greater spending, that market actors won’t spend because of animal spirits, and that if the government simply forces people to spend, then we’ll get to a boom? I realize that strict Keynesianism is not widely believed among economists, but isn’t that part still widely believed?

    • Jason Brennan

      That’s fair enough. Our complaint here is about mere make-work projects, not about fiscal stimulus.

      • Peter from Oz

        My problem is with making ”work” the be all and end all of existence. I know that we have to pretend that having a job is a great thing, because if we realised that most jobs are really tedious we’d have no sewerage workers, undertakers or fruit pickers.
        But surely it is the production of wealth or capital is what we should encourage.
        More people need to understand the difference between capital and income. In the 18th and Nineteenth century people understood. That is why most people strove to live a life of leisure, living on their income generated from capital inherited or accumulated.
        Of course the problem with that was that it encouraged scorn for the very foundation of that society, the amassing of capital through trade. Then came wars, inflation, socialism and the consumer boom. The middle classes had to work because their capital wouldn’t support them any more; and even if it did the social networks had all changed so as to leave no real reamant of the once dominant leisured class. It was then that the myth of ‘jobs’ being the end to which economic policy must be bent really came into its own.

        • Jason Brennan

          No one said work is the be all end all of existence

          • Peter from Oz

            As that great philospher, Noel Coward, said: ”Don’t quibble, Sybil.”

    • Sean II

      Most Finns never find out who their real benefactor is.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      For starters, Rand referred to herself as an Objectivist, and violently rejected the libertarian label. And as far as the miserable Russian’s philosophical bona fides are concerned, one could do worse than quote the old chestnut: Rand’s fiction was philosophy and her philosophy was fiction.

    • Theresa Klein

      I think we’re all seeing the problem with using make work jobs to provide stimulus. Eventually you build infrastructure for the jobs and not for the value of the infrastructure, which is one reason why infrastructure projects cost so much in America. The value of the work contribution is diluted because it’s intentionally being done less efficiently so as to employ more people

  • I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, and I’m really glad you chose to write about it.

    You probably address this in the book, but it might be worth noting that there may be some (at least a little) tension here between this idea and the way libertarians often encourage people to “vote with your dollars.” In other words, a lot of people pay more than they have to in order to “support local business” or to divert money to companies that have a “social conscience.” In a way, this is a lot like rewarding producers for reasons unrelated to their having done a good job at their primary job.

    • Sean II

      You proceed from a false assumption: locavores don’t actually care how far their chicken traveled, they just want to seem caring. The virtue signal is part of the product. Hence still deserving of reward.

      Me personally, I prefer to ask waiters about the weighted average cost of capital at the ranch where my steak grew up. If I don’t like the number, its walkout time.

      • I’m a xenovore. That is, I’ll pay more to ensure my chicken is well-traveled before I eat it. And it’s not really a cosmopolitan unless the triple sec has backpacked across Europe or put in a Summer with the Peace Corps.

        • Sean II

          “Forget everything I said up to this point: bring me a fermented shark head aged since anarchy reigned in Iceland, on a bed of purcupine quills cooked in offal from a human organ market, wrap that whole mess in an old issue of The Freeman and serve it to me on a seastead.”

      • A. Alexander Minsky

        Sean, let’s exercise a smidgen of charity towards our fellow man. People’s motives are often mixed and contradictory. It is conceivable that a desire for virtue signaling can be combined with a genuine concern for the local economy.

        • Sean II

          Can’t do it Sally. If locavores actually cared about helping economies, they’d learn some economics. And if they did that, they’d stop being locavores.

          • King Goat

            If people that disagreed with me really cared, they’d look into the matter more closely, see I’m right and agree with me. The fact that they don’t shows they don’t really care!

          • Sean II

            They wouldn’t be agreeing with me, dipshit. They’d be agreeing with economics.

          • King Goat

            That’s right! Because economics has one, undisputed answer for all the possible reasons one might prefer businesses in their community!

          • Peter from Oz

            But even if these locavores did stop being locavores after learning some economics, they would pompously let us all know, via some sort of ….
            virtue signalling.

          • AP²

            If locavores actually cared about helping economies, they’d learn some economics

            That only follows if they know they need to learn some economics to make better decisions.

          • Sean II

            But of course they do.

    • King Goat

      “this is a lot like rewarding producers for reasons unrelated to their having done a good job at their primary job.”

      This reminds me of a guy I went to high school with who couldn’t stand the fact that so many girls liked this classmate of ours rather than him. His complaint centered around the argument that on every objective feature he matched or excelled this guy-he was more built, more athletic, was a super nice guy, what was up with these girls saying they liked ‘Steve’ more because he was ‘cool’ or ‘sweet;’ what kind of criteria was that?

      In other words, I think, apart from a few examples (and Brennan’s is a good one), that in real, as-lived life it’s rather difficult to point to a narrow criteria that is the ‘primary’ job of the producer.

  • King Goat

    How about ‘workfare’ programs? Is it more or less injurious to this need to be actually productive, as opposed to being deceived into thinking oneself productive, to require some type of work from the welfare recipient as opposed to just depositing funds into their EBT card?

    • Rob Gressis

      It’s a good question; I imagine, but I’m too lazy to check, that some proponents of workfare would argue that workfare reinforces discipline as well as the norms of how to behave in a real job (maybe William Julius Wilson says this in _When Work Disappears_). But even if this is true about real jobs, it could be that it isn’t true about workfare jobs, for the kinds of reasons Brennan and van der Vossen offer.

      If I had to bet, though, I would bet that a lot of people in make-work programs don’t think of them as make-work, for the kinds of reasons Brennan offers in _Against Democracy_ (viz., the average person isn’t very smart when it comes to something about which he has no skin in the game).

      • King Goat

        Good points, but what I was getting at could perhaps be better expressed with a different example: take two unemployed craftsmen, both need money and both have mothers that want to help them out. Mom 1 just sends her son a check for X to help him, Mom 2 lies to her son (or hell, maybe she convinces herself) that she needs a job done (which she had no desire to have done prior to hearing about her son’s problems) that pays X, that he’s right for the job and hires him to do it. Later, the son of Mom 2 find out about all this. Who is, or maybe who should be, more or less ‘devastated’ in the way Finn was?

      • Sean II

        “I imagine, but I’m too lazy to check…”

        Probably because no federal program was around to build your (make)work ethic.

  • Sean II

    So Randian I checked the URL bar to make I was reading this here.

  • LLC

    I find this argument an interesting one for a couple of reasons: One is the assumption that ‘makework’ projects are all equally valueless, when many have come to be of significant economic as well as social value (for example, The TVA project), and many more to be of significant social value. The other is that we seem to have left social cost and value out of the equation. This omission may be appropriate when drawing up corporate balance sheets, but when taking a societal view, not so much. Isn’t it the very recognition of social costs and benefits that puts the BH in BHL?

    • Jason Brennan

      If the project actually has benefits that outweigh the costs, it’s not a make-work project, is it? Seems like you answered your own objection.

      • Sean II

        Although it’s common to conflate them, there’s an important distinction between make-work and work initiated by non-market actors.

        NASA is non market, but it would be absurd to call what they do make-work, and its workers certainly should not go around feeling fraudulent like Finn.

        A harder case would be Yorkshire coal mines in the time of Scargill. It looks like real work, and a little while ago it was real work, but at current prices it’s not work any real market would pay for.

        Yet it’s not at all clear the miners should feel like Finn does. Coal is useful, they are producing it, and someone is burning it up. The fact that a subsidy is needed to bridge the price gap between producer and consumer doesn’t seem enough to remove the miner’s sense of worthwhile labor.

        And yet, if the subsidy really is guided by loss without limit, eventually we will get to a point when the worker can plainly see the coal they mine piling up unused in a heap. And after awhile someone will get the idea of storing in the unused mines, i.e. paying them to put it back. In this case the Finn objection obviously does apply. That kind of fake work really is demoralizing to a healthy human being.

        But lots of messy space in between those extreme cases, and therefore it seems possible that a subtly designed make-work scheme could escape this problem.

      • LLC

        Thanks, Jason, for your reply. But, while what you say may be ‘accurate’, that doesn’t change the fact that without our exchange, with your clarification, many, if not most, of your readers would have assumed you meant to include all government sponsored programs designed to put the otherwise unemployable to work regardless of the project’s value, and given it no further thought.

  • Theresa Klein

    Ayn Rand would have loved this entry.
    It’s perhaps a little noticed irony in libertarian thought. In Rand’s novels, the productive heros always want and expect others to be selfish and respect them more when they are – precisely because it gives them pleasure to satisfy a genuine need rather than be the recipient of a false compassion. Rand’s characters want to produce something of actual value to people, and they universally disdain receiving handouts, despite the fact that it’s arguably more “selfish” to accept a handout than to be compelled to produce something of actual value to others.
    Thus, this kind of mutually respectful egoism turns the concept of selfishness on it’s head. It’s a selfishness in which it’s more virtuous to produce than to consume. But in a capitalist society, it is in fact production which is rewarded by the market – production of goods and services which are genuinely demanded by others. The “selfish” person must serve others to be ultimately rewarded with financial gain, and the desire to serve others becomes the pathway to selfish rewards.
    This virtuous feedback loop is only possible in a system in which actual needs are expressed through market prices – people can’t know how best to serve others unless the price signals they receive accurately reflect what people really want and need – in other works only in a free market.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      Ayn Rand would have detested any site named “Bleeding Heart Libertarians”. She held both labels in utter contempt. Were the author of “Atlas Shrugged still with us, merely visiting this corner of the web would probably be an offense worthy of expulsion from the Objectivist inner circle.

      • Sean II

        She’d have hated the site, sure enough, but she could not have hated the argument in this particular post.

        • A. Alexander Minsky

          Ayn Rand seemed to have an almost bottomless capacity for hate. And I once heard Objectivists described as people who won’t take yes for an answer. Even if Rand concurred with 97% of what was written in this particular post, she probably would have focused on the remaining 3%.

      • Theresa Klein

        I should add I’m not always a fan of ayn rand. She conflates egoism as a personal ethos with libertarianism as a political philosophy in a way that leads a lot of people to believe that you have to be an egoist to be a libertarian. You don’t really, you can be as altruistic as you feel like, start a hippie commune whatever. You just can’t employ the state to make people join you.

        • Sean II

          Of course the catch is she defined egoist in a weird way very much at odds with everyday usage. In her mouth the word entailed things like: honesty, scrupulousness, refusal to accept unearned benefits, justice, productivity, etc.

          In other words she meant something like what Jason is describing is in his post: the desire not just to collect a reward, but actually to deserve it.

          This yields a different criticism of Rand – namely, that she was simply repackaging a more traditional code of morality with provocative wordplay.

          A lot of truth to that. Because when you come right down to it, her heroes talk a mean game of iconoclasm while mostly acting like Calvinists. Those books are filled with responsible people who show up to work and do what’s hard instead of what’s easy, etc.

          Perhaps that’s part of the reason why upper middle class kids so define Rand’s readership: because her characters are slightly cooler versions of their parents.

          • There is an underappreciated part of Rand’s philosophy, which is underappreciated because she so rarely got explicit about it.

            Rand took economics so seriously that she recognized that economically inefficient outcomes meant life-or-death for somebody. From this, she concluded that economically inefficient outcomes were “anti-life,” and all the rest follows from that.

            Critics will dismiss this as polemic hyperbole, but I think it’s one of the strongest points she made.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            Of course none of Rand’s characters have children. The Objectivist canon is an eerily childless world. Apparently the parents of upper middle class kids can only be made cool in an alternate universe in which they forgo the challenges, rigors, frustrations, and rewards of raising kiddos.

          • Sean II

            “Of course none of Rand’s characters have children…”

            A point worth pressing, because much of their heroic behavior would have seemed frankly irresponsible if there were kids in the picture, suffering as hostages of mom and dad’s uncompromising stands.

            The most serene sell-outs I know are parents. They don’t seem to lose much self-respect by telling bosses and clients what they want to hear, just to keep the checks flowing. And I don’t blame them.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            As the Libertarian Party Vice Chair Arvin Vohra has pointed out, parenting can also lead to support for the welfare state. Folks who would be loathe to accept food stamps or Section 8 housing have no problem insisting that singles, childless couples,and seniors be taxed in order to pay for the public school system. It’s amazing how many “rugged individualists” have no qualms about insisting the state educate/baby sit their children for a full twelve years.

          • Theresa Klein

            We could have a separate debate over the merits of ethical egoism. My point is that it has no actual bearing on the merits of libertarianism as a political philosophy. Libertarianism does not require people to be egoists of any variety. And unfortunately, the confusion between libertarian and egoist philosophy makes people who reject egoism inclined to reject libertarianism too, as they mistake one for the other.

          • Sean II

            Ayn Rand is more popular than libertarianism.

            If you were right, it’d be the other way around.

    • King Goat

      “wherein Dagny lives in John Galt’s house and does his cooking and cleaning until she can get back to building railroads ”

      Theresa, in the novel, does Galt need, or was he looking for someone to do that before he agrees to the deal with Dagny?

      • Theresa Klein

        I don’t think he needed it but he also paid her a pittance for it – ie not more than it was worth to him.

        • Sean II

          It’s part of being in a market that you don’t always know what you want to buy – goods or services – until you see what’s available.

          There was an obscure figure named James Buchanan who had something to say about this: the market doesn’t serve some static set of preferences and needs that existed prior to it. Instead it creates conditions under which new preferences are forever emerging.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            Thanks to Ms. MacLean, James Buchanan is posthumously emerging from obscurity.

        • King Goat

          If he wasn’t looking to engage someone to do that before or after running into Dagny with her situation then I think most people would think it was about her, not him.

          • Theresa Klein

            Well, they do end up getting hooked up, so maybe he liked having her around. Maybe it was some sort of subtle Dominance-Submission kink.

          • Sean II

            It wasn’t subtle.

    • Peter from Oz

      My wife tells me that the opening line of “The Fountainhead” is: ”Howard Roark laughed.” She also said that she thought that was the most untrue line in the book, because none of the characters has any sense of humour whatsoever. I have to say that on reading Atlas Shrugged I only had a few laughs and all of those were ironic. It was Mills and Boon for those with Asbergers with a side order of Manicheism on steroids.
      When faced with her impossibly brilliant characters I kept thinking of Waugh’s line in ”Brideshead Revisited” about Rex Mottram who wasn’t a whole man, but just part of a man highly developed.
      Rand was wrong. We want to serve others and ourselves. Our motives are mixture of selfishness and altruism.
      As to the problem of Great Expectations discussed above, surely it goes back to a sort of extended Say’s law: one must add value.
      Finn added value by helping Magwitch escape, because Magwitch added value by making a fortune. Magwitch paid Finn for that service by subsidising Finn’s painting. The problem for Fin nwas that until the truth was revealed he thought he was being paid for his paintings and not for his genraous action as a boy. The thing about art of course is that it lives long after the artist’s death. So Finn will never know if his painting will eventually add value by being highly prized in the art world.
      Wilde was right when he said the truth is never pure and rarely simple

      • A. Alexander Minsky

        I always though Roark’s opening laugh was a mirthless gesture designed to show his contempt from the institution that was on the verge of expelling him.

        By the way, you meant to write Aspergers and Manichaeism. Spelling errors drive me bonkers- one of the symptoms of my own aspergers.

        • Peter from Oz

          Are you saying that Roark’s laugh was ironic? If Atlas Shrugged is anything to go by, that would be the only instance of irony in the whole book.
          Sorry about the typos.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            Nothing to apologize for- my aspergian quirks are hardly your fault.