On markets and alternatives
James Flynn — an academic famous for the “Flynn effect” (of increasing intelligence scores over time) — has some very left-wing views. In the course of discussing unrelated issues on a psychology podcast, he argued that the world would be better if people’s contributions to it weren’t so subjected to market-based rewards (emphasis mine):
Both of us want a society in which people who lack the entrepreneurial virtues, and have other virtues, have a better access to a good life. I mean it’s terrible how the present economic trend is separating off people with so-called entrepreneurial virtues, into an elite that leave the rest of society behind in terms of access to life to an extraordinary degree. It would be much better if we had a recognition that human beings are more than working machines. That they have a life outside of work. You know, it would be much better that rather than just emphasizing what pays in terms of the market, we encourage people in a humane way, to have access to as good a life as possible. For example, there are plenty of people I know who love working with wood and working with their hands. Now there is no reason why the state shouldn’t provide workshops where they can go and exercise that skill that are relatively free. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t subsidize sport on the amateur level or theater, where people who have intelligences — as Gardner calls them — different from analytical intelligences have a much richer life… You have a good society when there’s a rich and rewarding way of life and as many people have access to its benefits as possible. And we by merely allowing the market to label what’s socially valuable, we condemn many people not to have as rich a life as they could, given their non-entrepreneurial talents.
This seems to be a common sentiment in certain circles. And it almost sounds reasonable when you listen to him make his case (he only wants to encourage people, after all, and in a humane way — he must be totally reasonable!). But it’s literally an express call to subsidize people who Flynn feels bad for, on the basis of… it’s not clear what exactly. (Which is fine; the main the topic of the podcast was something else.)
The desire to subsidize the less fortunate is probably a universal sentiment, with people merely disagreeing about the boundaries of those who should receive subsidies.
I don’t want to address those boundaries — reasonable people will surely disagree on where to put them. I want to address the dismissive attitude Flynn’s comments demonstrate toward markets.
Imagine you’re out for a meal downtown, making your way to your destination on foot, when you come across an extremely sub-par musician performing on the corner. He has a few crunched-up dollar bills in some case in front of him, the universal sign for pay me please. You’re not legally obligated to pay him — which is something we should all be thankful for. If Flynn had his way, this might be a person you would be legally required to compensate.
I appreciate woodworking — I paid a friend who loves making things to make a counter for my basement bar (you can see it here). Most of us appreciate sports, and those who are in the business of entertaining us with their athletic talents can obviously do very well. Talented musicians and actors are in the same boat. But I wanted a counter of specific dimensions, made of specific wood, with a specific finish. Should I have had to pay for the dealer’s choice? (That’s a rhetorical question — my friend built to spec.) If you’re only willing to pay for a rock concert, should you have to pay if the band decides it wants to play country music?
Life would be horrible if we were required to compensate people for doing the things that they wanted to do, rather than the things that we want them to do. Yet this is exactly what Flynn proposed: government subsidies for wannabe woodworkers or amateur athletes or actors are public compensation for skills that the rest of us have demonstrated we are not willing to purchase on our own from those individuals (at least not at the levels Flynn would like).
What he derides as entrepreneurial values and merely allowing the market to label what’s socially valuable is hardly worthy of condemnation. (It also suggests that we only think things are socially valuable if they get you paid. Is that a common viewpoint?) These phrases he uses could be replaced with concepts like serving society and giving people what they want. When I heard his euphemisms, I heard a ridiculously intelligent man trying to justify his desire to pay his favored producers at the expense of people who are producing goods and services that the rest of us actually desire.
In a futile attempt to preempt some rebuttals that you might respond with, look at some of the things that Flynn said that I didn’t criticize:
- Both of us want a society in which people who lack the entrepreneurial virtues, and have other virtues, have a better access to a good life.
I’m not sure I know what he means by “people who lack entrepreneurial virtues” (he may not know either). But if it’s a euphemism for people who don’t earn much money, then this is a platitude; nearly all of us want poor people, or people with hard lives, to have opportunities to earn more money or to have an easier time.
- It would be much better if we had a recognition that human beings are more than working machines. That they have a life outside of work.
Who is he arguing with here? Nobody thinks that people should be “working machines,” or that their lives should be tied to work.
Lots of us think that if people want rare goods and services, that they should have to contribute something of similar value to the world. Do you want your options to be lousy musicians playing awful music on a corner (who you’re forced to compensate), or great musicians giving amazing performances to people who have chosen to see them? If merely picking up an instrument entitled a person to fast cars or whatever Flynn has in mind for the good life, we would all step up. And then who would do all the other necessary tasks?