Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Joe the Advance-Money Thief

A New York Times contributor has a fairly typical collectivist op-ed about the forthcoming book by 2008 presidential campaign gadfly Joe the Plumber:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

Note first that the fact that Mr. Egan can't trust someone to fix his toilet unless he has been properly licensed is sort of pathetic. That he needs government rather than his own good sense to pick a plumber is something I wouldn't expect to observe in a country fit for grownups to live in.

Equally important is this idea that it is the job of big publishing companies to write the books that pass Mr. Egan's no doubt properly credentialed notion of "good." As a starter, it raises the notion of what is "good": plenty of highly educated and well-read people have starkly different standards from Mr. Egan on this question. And of course one might argue that the opinion of what someone who buys Joe the Plumber's books ought to ethically count as much as Mr. Egan's, and that markets are there to sort out these conflicting views. This is the fundamental justice of the market - no gatekeeping critic can block that which is desired; all aesthetic judgments are treated equally.

But never mind. Publishers know what is really "good," but they ignore the good in favor of the profitable:

"For the others — you friends of celebrities penning cookbooks, you train wrecks just out of rehab, you politicians with an agent but no talent — stop soaking up precious advance money.

I know: publishers say they print garbage so that real literature, which seldom makes any money, can find its way into print. True, to a point. But some of them print garbage so they can buy more garbage."

This is classic leftist thinking - there is a zero-sum amount of "advance money," and more for Joe the Plumber means less for unjustly neglected real writers. And so publishers have some kind of mysterious responsibility to devote their own resources and expose their shareholders, workers, and authors they have already signed to deals to risks in order to advance Mr. Egan's interests, rather than those interests that these groups have worked out together to their mutual satisfaction in the marketplace. The idea that we live in a positive-sum world, and that Mr. Egan was free starting the moment this column occurred to him to round up enough money in gilded New York to start a firm to publish the writers he likes - he could probably find it amid the loose change in the office couch down the hall of (justifiably) bestselling Times columnist Thomas Friedman - simply never crosses his mind. He could then find out if there really is enough advance money to go around - if the value to readers of the writing Mr. Egan adores is higher than the opportunity cost of producing it.

But that would require Mr. Egan to expose himself to risk, and it's better that other people be strongarmed into doing that. The resources that the shareholders of Random House have accumulated - the human capital, the human networks, the printing presses, the editors and their judgment - are really there to serve Mr. Egan's arbitrary (just as anyone's is) notion of good writing. The popularity of this kind of thinking - from auto bailouts to paying for health care to growing crops to, now, writing books - is why this is every day a progressively less free society. The day someone figured out how to privatize reward and collectivize risk was the day that freedom began to die, and Mr. Egan, in his own inconsequential way, long ago signed onto that agenda, probably without a moment's reflection.

As an aside, if you want the cultural assumptions of Mr. Egan's argument properly skewered, do it the Iowahawk way.


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