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On the Value of Being a Producer

Summary:
Uncategorized 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

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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.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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