Old joke. Q: How can you spot an intellectual? A: He’s the guy in the corner worrying about “the problem of the intellectuals.” The problem of blogging, then.
The principal lesson of blogs is that the market price for reasonably well-considered rumination is zero, and the competition for readers at that price is fierce. This understandably alarms people who are paid for ruminating — “thumb-sucking” in the argot — as opposed to reporting. It also explains both big-media hostility to bloggers, and concomitantly, blogger hostility to big media, columnists in particular. Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman are regularly savaged by people who write as well as they do, think much better, and must wonder to themselves why Dowd and Krugman have highly-paid jobs at The New York Times while all they have is their damn blogs.
It is odd, and unprecedented, that people think they ought to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy. Back in the salad days of Spy magazine, its writers were paid almost literally minimum wage, and there were 50 people who were dying to work there for every one who did. Anyone who has taken a freshman economics course will tell you that these two facts are intimately related. (One of Spy‘s best writers was asked at his year-end review what he wanted in the coming year. “More money,” he answered. He went on to become a well-known TV producer and is now richer than Croesus.)
Michael Blowhard has an essay on the economics of book-writing that has inspired a fair amount of hand-wringing in the thread. He gives several reasons for writing a book, the most important of which is being “an obsessed lunatic.” It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation:
The activities of [artistic geniuses] cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation…
Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him…
The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact of praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term.
The productivity of labor has become so high in this country that most anyone who has bothered to acquire some marketable skills and is not grimly devoted to his job is awash in leisure. Trollope, who produced 40-odd novels by arising at 4 AM daily and writing for two hours before his day job at the post office, would envy us. The Marxist fantasy of a people milking cows in the morning and practicing drama criticism at night has nearly come to pass, though not in the way that Marx intended. You want to make money and write in your spare time, be my guest. You want to make money writing, write romance novels or technical texts. You want to make money writing serious books about your cherished passions, go whine to someone else.20 Comments