The Price of Bibles

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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24 Responses

  1. Freddie says:

    I’m told the fish has no word for water. So here.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Freddie says:

      Meaning, I don’t think that the problem with economics is that it doesn’t properly assess value, for the reasons you’ve articulated here; I think the problem is that economics is ultimately mute on the question of how to adjudicate overlapping desires when we are so incapable, within the contexts of our own lives, to weigh exterior, notional need from interior, directly-accessed needs. Now, many seem to think that markets are the way to do that, but as you know, I and many others don’t agree that markets are equitable in even the best of circumstances but rather have intrinsic biases that privilege certain kinds of need and magnify structural advantage. (See the context of everything ever written about American political debate for more!)

      Economics assumes, through public choice theory, that no one ever has a better understanding of need than the person who is in the state of needing. But I always wonder whether it couldn’t be the case that outsiders are bad at assessing the needs of others, but that individuals are also piss-poor at assessing their own needs. The fish needs water desperately, but no one has a poorer understanding of the value of that water than the fish who has not found himself beached on dry land; his privilege in living in water has left him without the context necessary to operate as if having water was anything other than the truth of life.Report

  2. Rufus F. says:

    I’m glad the post was provocative, although clearly I’m not great at making myself clear. What I was trying to say is not terribly different from what you’re talking about here, which is that economics doesn’t make strong normative claims about individual scales of value. It’s basically agnostic in these matters.

    But, of course, I understand why it’s agnostic. I don’t fault economics for this, nor am I faulting the market. Actually, I’m not even really criticizing consumer culture, which is what it is. Ultimately, even if it is shallow, we couldn’t change that using market mechanisms without severely limiting individual choice- i.e. now you can only buy what Shakespeare wrote on love, but romance novels are banned from sale.

    So I’m saying that economics gives us a necessarily limited picture of value- limited (for the same reasons you’ve described) to a sort of agnostic and putative universal value. This is not the fault of economics, any more than it’s the fault of geography for not telling us which communities are best to live in. It is a necessarily limited frame of analysis. But because it’s limited, cultural institutions should have other visions of value and human life to supplement what the market tells us.

    What I have tried to criticize are attempts to apply market analysis too broadly to cultural institutions- to try to make the market tell us a lot more than it really tells us. This sentence: “If we asked economics to tell us what we should think about these things — the spiritual value of Bibles included — we wouldn’t be doing proper social science anymore” is precisely what I mean. Obviously, economics can’t tell us the spiritual value of a Bible. I’m not saying it should. All I’m saying is that we still need churchmen who can tell us the spiritual value of a Bible; who have another vision of a good life, aside from an economic one.

    Which is why cultural institutions need to be driven by other visions of value that supplement what the market tells us. This seems like common sense really. But, as I like to bitch about, I work in a cultural institution in which there are a great many “experts” who argue that, since the market is wonderful at deciding the monetary value of toothpaste and jeans, why can’t education be treated as another product and our decisions be made accordingly?

    Since the market is basically agnostic and egalitarian in terms of access, the argument goes that most of the claims we might make for other scales of value are undemocratic and elitist. Who am I to say that Shakespeare’s sonnets are a more elevating guide to the human heart than rape porn? To do so is to snobbishly judge the rape porn audience. Like you suggest here, making these claims is a pissing contest. It’s elitist and pseudo-intellectual and non-egalitarian and fill-in-the-epithet…

    But it’s also guided by a more complete and dignified picture of a human being than just seeing them as a consumer. If I say to you that your life would be enriched by reading the sonnets, I’m saying that there are boons in your life beyond being able to consume freely. An economist can’t make these claims, but I don’t see any reason that other people can’t. And my point is that doing so should be seen more as a mark of respect for the individual than some snobbish contempt.

    My job is not just customer service, although I have often been told by admins that it is. Look, I’ll be teaching again in the next year and, I can almost guarantee, at least one student will ask me after class what sort of courses they should take in order to be a more fully educated or cultivated person. They will feel the gap in their lives that higher education serves to fill, which I felt at their age and still feel today. Now, for the market-minded administrator, the correct answer is “you should decide what courses look like fun and take those.” Because any other determinations of value might cast aspersions on that people who make other decisions. They’re elitist, and so forth.
    However, when I actually tell them what courses will be more enriching for them than other courses, it’s because I see them as more than just a consumer, and I am not entirely agnostic about them.Report

  3. Mchael Drew says:

    I felt like I understood just what Rufus meant from the beginning, and that Jason’s eplication of economics’ agnosticims abut value was imlpicit. So it seems to this observer that this all really was muh ado about a fundamental agreement. But a very thoughtful and clarifying ado nonetheless. Jason’s reference to the history of value-ordering in economics is very interesting and new to me. I’d appreciate any good references on that chapte of the field’s evltion he could offer.Report

    • Mchael Drew in reply to Mchael Drew says:

      Sorry for the even greater-than-usual rate of typos — on one of those rubber roll-up keyboards.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mchael Drew says:

        A lot of the early history of the idea of “value” in economics seems to be tied up with macroeconomic policy, or with what we’d call macro nowadays. Some very strong claims can be found in the eighteenth century and earlier for gold and land especially as having value that is truer or realer than other forms of value. It was very common especially with land to argue that freeheld land tended to produce virtue, and that for this it was more valuable than other commodities, even if the price was the same. This may be sociology, or even political economy, but it’s not a theory of value.

        One of the latest attempts to really insist on different types of value comes from Marx, especially in the early chapters of Capital. Marx argued that goods in fact each possessed at least three different types of value — the value of the labor put into making it, the value that the consumer takes in making use of it, and the market value. Market values, Marx claimed, were not fully reflective of either of the others in capitalism, because of the extraction of surplus value by the capitalists. His attempts to shoehorn labor value into use value (and thereby to call market value into question) were always doubtful, though, and one early criticism was simply that capitalists really do have justification for extracting at least some surplus value — they are obliged pay the workers whether the product sells now, or later, or never. Because they assumed the risk and because they are in effect advancing profits to the workers, there is some justification, though by no means an unconditional one, for their keeping a share of the surplus value.

        It may be that thinking of Marx is why I reacted in such a skeptical way to Rufus. I still can’t quite understand what his complaint is, because it’s (more clearly now than before) different from Marx’s, and rather more like that of a thoughtful person whose interior value scale is not the same as that of market prices. But mine isn’t either, and yet I don’t see this as the fault of consumerism.Report

        • There’s the issue- I don’t see it as the fault of consumerism either. Market economics are a necessarily-limited heuristic- they can tell us market value, but they can’t tell us things like, say literary value. If you ask an economist, “I have a free day this weekend; based on your research, what book would be the most worthwhile one to read?” they can’t tell you. And they shouldn’t be expected to. This isn’t the fault of economists, the market, or consumerism- it’s just a limited heuristic. Which is why those other value scales need to be taken into account as well. Really, I’m not arguing against that heuristic- I’m arguing for beefing up and maintaining the other value scales so that we don’t make market value our sole criterion of worth.

          My critique is against the decision-makers who want “the market” to give us the sole “value” of cultural items, because that’s not what it can or should do.

          Maybe an example would be libraries. Many of them are now scaling back on their bookshelves in order to fill their space with internet-access. At some point, we will see bookless libraries- and, in fact, I’ve read of a high school that has no books in its library. When you listen to the decision-makers explain this move, they speak only in market-terms. We are a service that needs to be receptive to our customers and they have told us that they want internet-access more than access to books. A library with few patrons would be a losing enterprise. etc. Leaving aside the question of whether or not they should be getting state-funding if they see themselves as a consumer-service, what’s troubling is that they limit their judgments about the success or failure of their institution to vague ideas of customer satisfaction. Ideally, a librarian should be able to tell you why books are valuable, even if only a minority reads them, but people who lack that other scale of value might well decide that “the market” should be the sole criterion of worth.

          In terms of the bookless high school (a private one!), the principal said that they wanted to be “receptive” to their “customers” and get with the times and so forth. But there is something profoundly disturbing about someone in charge of educating young people who can’t tell them why reading books is a worthwhile activity in itself and regardless of its current popularity.

          A library isn’t a mall. If a library maintains free access to books and has less patrons than a mall, it’s still a “successful” library. The mission isn’t solely, or even primarily, economic. I think most of us know that. My beef is with people who don’t know that and who want “the market” to act as some sort of oracle guiding what we do in all areas of cultural and civic life.

          So, as usual, my beef is really just with know-nothings in administrative positions.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

            My beef is with people who don’t know that and who want “the market” to act as some sort of oracle guiding what we do in all areas of cultural and civic life.

            In defense of the devil, I’ve always seen “the market” as a sloppy way of saying “what people do when left to their own devices”… and that leads me to, of all places, Rawls.

            If I sit back and throw up a veil of ignorance and then try to come up with a good way for society to be set up… I keep thinking about stuff like “you just *KNOW* that you’re going to roll awful when it comes time to roll your stats.”

            So I constantly want to hedge to allow my proverbial whomever shows up after the veil is lifted to be protected.

            I don’t assume that I will be one of the people in charge of picking out the curriculum for folks, but one of the people being told “you have to read this”… or, I suppose, put more crudely:

            I assume that I will be a traveler and not a TSA Protector Of The American People.

            As such, I always come up with the most lenient traveling rules I can reasonably come up with (or even more lenient than that).

            It’s not because I think that the market is awesome. It’s not. The market sucks… but when I think about what would ideally replace it, I always assume that I will be a traveler and not a member of the TSA and that is why I, whenever given the choice, will choose The Market over whatever “reforms” are suggested to take their place.

            (That said, the library in the example strikes me as profoundly perverse. Topsy-turvy. A library without books? That’s like a restaurant without food. There’s no point to even show up… and, I imagine, he will find that out very much for himself once the novelty wears off. A free internet cafe without the coffee that specializes in catering to hobos.)Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

              Which is just to say, you’ll take Rawls up on his bet.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Yes, but, for me, that means that I come to a *COMPLETELY* different conclusion than, it seems, most of the folks seem to reach when they read Rawls. It’s like they say “well, of course we need a TSA to protect us. We just need a web of rules and regulations ensuring that they do.”

                It’s like they use Rawls to justify a web of rules to ensure that Tsars are “good”.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

                I think I remember enough of Rawls to get what you’re saying. But isn’t there a pretty serious difference between authority and power? I mean, I can see where figures of power would pretty quickly “reform” and limit the market, while figures of authority might shape it by their example, but basically leave it alone.

                I don’t know if that makes sense. Maybe getting back to a librarian, it seems to me that a good librarian has quite a bit of cultural authority and almost no real power. In fact, it seems like power sweeps in to fill the void when there is no authority. The same is true of an ideal priest. Obviously, too many of them seem to have power; but in an ideal situation, they just have authority in a society. It seems like that would still be reconcilable with Rawlsian freedom, right?

                It also seems to me that many of the criticisms of figures of cultural authority conflate authority with power, but ideally figures of authority don’t make decisions for others, but are available to make suggestions- or really just to provide a model of how decisions might be made with a particular end in mind.

                In terms of a priest, I want him to have the cultural authority to suggest what sort of decisions I might make if I wanted to live a virtuous life; but I don’t want him to have the power in a society to decide that, say, we can’t buy booze and dirty magazines.

                Admittedly, I don’t know it this isn’t just a tangent.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

                As for the market, my feeling is about like Churchill on democracy- it’s the worst system except for all the others. Let’s just say that we agree on not limiting it at all. I am fine with an open cultural marketplace in which you can buy anything at all- rape porn, Bibles, Plato, Transformers, and so on to infinity. I don’t want to limit that, or even think it’s possible to limit that.

                But I still want to have the wise old man in the cave who we can ask what choices he would make. I don’t want him to have power over the market or the society. Leave him in the cave. But, conversely, don’t tell him, “Look, you’re screwing with the market by saying that rape porn is deplorable! So shut-up, will ya?” And don’t replace him with a consumer behavior analyst.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

                I think I might be able to untangent us…

                To bring us back to the primacy of the marketplace and the seeming categorization of Fully Moral Agents as mere Consumers, the problem comes whenever we imagine a better system than the marketplace… and it always involves a “good” Tsar.

                When you say “I’m arguing for beefing up and maintaining the other value scales so that we don’t make market value our sole criterion of worth.”

                Who do you imagine does the beefing up? Do you imagine that folks will be more likely to value the things on the list after this is done?

                Because (and let me know if I’m off base here), I’m imagining that you’re imagining an ideal aesthetician doing it… but I tremble at the thought that we’d end up with Monster Trucks, Monster Trucks, and Monster Trucks after a dozen generations or so.

                Maybe the distinction between power and authority would work the way you’re talking about. I’d certainly hope so.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well… yeah, it’s a bit off-base, but maybe I should replace “beefing up” with “just not fucking with”. Because I’m not thinking of an ideal figure- we already have these people. There are (I hope) still librarians who can tell us what books are worth reading, professors who can tell us what areas are worth studying, priests who can tell us what behaviors are worth engaging in- in other words, there already are figures who embody cultural authority. That’s who I have in mind. They don’t have any power to limit our choices, and I’m not saying they should. But, conversely, I think that their particular scales of value are sufficient for them to do what they do without having to remake themselves as part of the customer service industry. A priest doesn’t need to do market research in order to discover what sins are most popular and stop criticizing them. A librarian doesn’t need to figure out what the largest number of “consumers” wants a library to look like today and try to “give the people what they want” or consider herself to have failed in her job- that’s not her role. And a professor shouldn’t have to constantly rewrite the curriculum with an eye on what courses have the highest enrollment.

                It’s not a matter of, hypothetically, these people would serve as cultural guides but not have any power to limit our choices- it’s that that’s how they’ve generally functioned. Again, a librarian has no power, but they do have authority. And if you don’t fuck with them- that is, don’t tell them that they have to become something else to make it in today’s “market-driven world”- they can embody that authority without having any real power, aside from the privilege to do their job according to another scale of value.

                So, it’s more that the distinction between power and authority has worked the way I’m talking about. What I’m questioning is a certain mentality, that I’ve definitely encountered (if not here), that says, “Okay, well sure a librarian has some silly old ideas about open access to elevating works of literature and how that strengthens a democratic society. But, come on! In point of fact, what she’s really doing is serving her customers, and she’d better get that through her head or the library will have no customers at all, and be totally worthless!”Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

                Only the word “really” should have been in bold there.Report

              • Maribou in reply to Jaybird says:

                As an aspiring librarian who works in an academic library, I would respectfully disagree with your dichotimization of cultural authority vs. customer service. What I strive towards, and what I think is fairly prevalent in the profession at this historic point in time – as opposed to say 1930 when your model would be dead-on – is rather a sort of dialog / subjective model of interaction. I’m the one who (at least tries to be) an expert at figuring out what *you* will enjoy and/or profit from intellectually, and I tweak my suggestions and arguments based on the data you give me (or I pull out of you). It’s not some kind of shallow, retail-based business model, it’s a sincere effort to reach the patron in front of me and not some hypothetical Platonic ideal of a patron that needs exactly what I think they should need.

                The only cultural authority I have is the cultural authority you decide to give me. And sure, if I have a patron who says, “what I really want out of life is for you to tell me the Very Best Classic Books Evar and why I should read them,” I can step to that. But I don’t see it as any more important an interaction than the one I have with an English prof who comes in saying “My god, I can’t take another postmodern deconstruction of colonial voice right now! What do you have that’s fun and full of vampires??”

                I’m a companion, not a dictator or a sales drone. I think most librarians feel the same way, although you wouldn’t always know it from their language (in either direction) if you aren’t immersed in the context to see what they’re reacting against.

                (Apologies if you ARE a librarian, and I’m lacking my own context by making this response.)Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

                Understood. In my view, Rawls is offering a bet to proponents of laissez-faire: if you’ll take the world as you prescribe it to be (one such prescription among many being one with no or minimal gov’t intervention into private economic and other activity), and your place in it, entirely as you find it after being assigned a randomly-selected social position/identity/physical location in that world, without knowing what position that will be when taking that deal, then you are entitled to that prescription for the world. If you have such a prescribed world and are willing to accept your randomly-assigned role, then you’re taking the bet. If you have a prescription but you’re not willing to accept the random role, then you’re shying away from the bet.

                What I think Rawls’ bargain overlooks as a mechanism for social analysis is the extent people will simply assume they can understand what is experienced by others — in this world to say nothing of imagined ones — and say, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll take that bet for my preferred world,’ after which there is then no mechanism whatsoever for making them live up to the agreement. The value of the exercize is entirely dependent on the participants’ good faith in estimating their ability to imagine experiences other than their own (in either actual or imagined worlds).Report

              • …should have said he’s offering the bet to laissez-faire types as well as to bearers of other prescriptions for the world.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Maribou- we’re running out of response buttons, so this is down here. At any rate, your point is fair and I really shouldn’t have characterized it as an either/or, when maybe it’s more a both/and. Like you said, if I come in and ask for the best books ever, you can step to that. Someone whose information about books is limited to market information can’t- through no fault of their own. It’s just their heuristic doesn’t allow them to make that judgment. That’s why I think we need people who are capable of filling that role, and that they should have a strong say in the future of the library as an institution, although I understand that it’s not as simple as sitting on high pronouncing what all people must read- also that not doing that doesn’t make you a sales drone.

                I guess what got me thinking about this is in terms of libraries is that the argument for getting rid of the books in libraries is always something like, “Well, only 20 books were checked out this month, so clearly the patrons are ‘trending away’ from books. We should put in a cappuccino bar instead.” What I sincerely hope is that librarians, when faced with that argument, can explain to the people who make such arguments why that’s a bad idea. Personally, I don’t know if I can make an argument more convincing than sputtering … are you nuts?!… the library is a secular temple…. the joys of strolling in stacks and discovering books cannot be replicated elsewhere… and a bunch of other things that aren’t particularly convincing.Report

  4. M.Z. says:

    To end the boring agreement, I will offer a parry.

    The argument against the term value as economics uses it is it is not reflective of intrinsic value. Economic value is a composition of ease of of production and popularity. So in one sense, Taylor Swift has great economic value. However, people often take that to mean that she is an excellent singer. She isn’t. Her vocal range is somewhere around an octave and a half. Her breathing technique is atrocious. As far as technical ability goes, she is somewhere between below average to average. I doubt any student of vocals would much dispute my summary. Yet someone will show up and claim that the market has spoken or some other tripe.

    This wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that economists have created compensating mechanisms. Patents and royalties are a whole scheme created to attempt to bring economic value closer to intrinsic value. The whole area of externalities is an attempt at reconciliation.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to M.Z. says:

      Economic value is a composition of ease of of production and popularity.

      This isn’t at all what I’ve been saying.

      You, M.Z., have your own scale of economic values — within you! It manifests when you act, as when you decline to buy Taylor Swift albums, and when you spend your entertainment dollars elsewhere.

      Your value is no different from anyone else’s, and it is no less economic value because it is relatively less often shared. There’s no claim in (proper) economics at all that you have a faulty, or improper, or un-economical scale of values.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    Rufus, understand that my understanding of libraries and how libraries work comes to me about half of what I remember when I spent all day, every day, in the stacks and the other half is what I get from osmosis from Maribou.

    For what it’s worth, I agree absolutely with your are you nuts?!… the library is a secular temple…. the joys of strolling in stacks and discovering books cannot be replicated elsewhere.

    I have a nagging worry and a subconscious confidence.

    My nagging worry is something to the effect of “what if people keep making the wrong choices and we end up with Idiocracy? And worse, what if we institute cultural gatekeepers in an effort to stave this off and they’re inevitably replaced via nepotism and democracy and whathaveyou by stupid populist cultural gatekeepers? Monster Trucks, Monster Trucks, and Monster Trucks!”

    But I also have a confidence… we still have the Metamorphoses. We still have The Inferno.

    And they will survive horrific atrocities like the recent movie and the recent video game… and, maybe, there’s going to be a kid out there who picks up The Metamorphoses or The Inferno because of the little tiny bit of (forgive my use of the word here, I’m using it in the pre-modern sense) Awesome that accidentally survived the translation process.

    These things have survived (and, surely, will survive long, long after our current civilization crumbles) because they are That Damn Good. I don’t know how to protect them better than they are capable of protecting themselves.Report

  6. Rufus F. says:

    I agree- the human heart has needs that those works will continue to fill.

    As for bookless libraries, here’s someone arguing for them:
    To be fair, he’s arguing more that they’re inevitable so lie back and think of England. Note that he’s making the case by projecting current (somewhat unrelated) consumer behavior into the future and applying it to the whole culture. Also that libraries hire him to tell them how to restructure their institution. Otherwise, I have no problem with him.Report