Nothing to Offer

Philosophy professor Gary Gutting wrote the following in the New York Times on the weekend:

Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

The truth of that final sentence reveals a market failure that threatens the vitality, diversity and resiliency of Canadian and American societies.

Gutting concedes that arts superstars can make an excellent living–anyone pumping out bestsellers or hit songs–but the rest must treat their humanistic and artistic ambitions as a hobby to be squeezed in between billable hours. Only a lucky very few can safely build a life around the arts and humanities.

I believe in choice and I believe, largely, in meritocracy and competition, at least in their pure forms. But the free market shows a distinctive warp when it comes to choosing a life in the arts.

Take the writing life. Why must choosing to be a novelist be like playing the lottery?A handful swim in wealth, and the rest, even prolific writers and award-winners, live on the edge. Success shouldn’t be all-or-nothing. Great and even not great literature enriches the world. There should be a way for non-superstar writers to create prosperous, secure lives. They should be able to create comfortable middle-class incomes while focusing on work related to their ambitions (maybe editing or teaching writing). I’m not suggesting anyone support them for a few decades while they write the next great tome, but they also shouldn’t need to become copy writers just to make a decent living. (No offense to talented copy writers. I’m just saying it’s unfortunate every time a hard-working, ambitious writer is forced into advertising by circumstance.)

The free market has its strengths, but too often it turns artistic ambitions into sentences of semi-poverty marked by mad scrambles to cobble together decent contracts. The Canadian and US economies are prone to rewarding the lowliest business ideas with great wealth and attendant power. They also make choosing a life in the arts or humanities a constant struggle to survive. These free markets are not free in the way I understand the term. Freedom of choice is essential to true freedom.

No one with talent and willingness to work hard in a job of merit should be left prey to the whims of taste.


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