When talking about the nature of business a couple of years back, fellow Sweet Talker David brought up a wonderful quote from the movie Sabrina:
Bogart: Making money isn’t the main point of business. Money is a by-product.
Holden: David -What’s the main objective? Power?
Bogart: Ah! That’s become a dirty word.
Holden: What’s the urge? You’re going into plastics. What will that prove?
Bogart: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you’re in business. It’s coincidental that people who’ve never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?
Emphasis added by me.
I wrote a piece about consumers, but it was received very badly by some, mostly (it seemed to me) because of what is implied by the very word “consumer”.
Let’s toss to the side those old notions of production and consumption, so tied to a mental model developed around manufacturing. Instead, let’s think about making use, and provisioning what is being used.
More importantly, let’s stop thinking of these as two separate things apart from one another, and try harder to talk about them like the unity they actually form.
In their home lives, parents may buy books, and educational video games, and Cable TV with cartoons, all for their children. If they’re the planning sort, they buy food for the week. If they’re not, they might find themselves ordering pizza one night. If they want some time away from the kids, they probably need a babysitter, and odds are they will go out to a restaurant, or a movie.
Every thing or service that they and their children use—books to read, games to play, TV to watch, food to eat, a babysitter to make sure their children are safe and taken care of, somewhere to spend time together away from typical routines—must be provisioned beforehand.
A large number of people are involved in provisioning a children’s book; we may think of the author, of course, and the people who work at the publisher, but complex supply chains bring countless hands into the process. All of these people, in turn, contribute to the provision of books like the ones our initial parents bought, so that they, too, may be able to buy books or games for their own children, or for themselves.
Meanwhile, the parents in the original example must contribute to the provision of some thing or service in order to be able to buy the very items mentioned above in the first place!
In this way, provision and use are processes which form a unity.
Today, a huge supermajority of what we use is provisioned through commerce. But not all of it, not by a long shot. Infrastructure is largely provisioned through tax-financed institutions, for example. Politically, countries like America long ago moved towards provisioning the great bulk of education through such institutions, as well.
Home provisioning, such as cleaning dishes and clothes, or having a vegetable garden, still accounts for a great deal of what we use as well. We may provision a car through commerce, but when we drive our child to school, we are opting to use ourselves as drivers rather than opting for a car service.
For most of human history, nearly everyone had to spend nearly every hour of the day working so that they could provision their own food. The shift from subsistence farming to nearly everyone in developed nations provisioning their food through commerce has been a tremendous gain.
In the 20th century, there were many attempts to provision everything through government administration. They went terribly. As I said above, this does not discredit any provisioning through government administration. But it has certainly made it clear that there are limitations we would do well to heed.
In a country like America, government provision largely takes the form of government participation in commerce. Tax-funds are the basis of the purchasing, and government officials oversee and make key decisions, but the materials must be bought from companies, and the labor is often done by contractors. And government officials go home and buy their children’s books and games just like everyone else—in our country, government provision forms a unity with private use, as well.
While maintaining the wisdom of making distinctions, I think we could stand to be a little less doctrinaire, less categorical. There are many ingredients that go into the making of the ordinary life; a great deal of those ingredients are provisioned through commerce.
10 thoughts on “Provision and Use”
One issue that comes up is that people often seem to think it a problem that most of what they provide for society goes towards what is viewed as “necessities” on their end. Ultimately what people want is a greater percentage of what they earn through their labor to go to non-necessities. And of course this isn’t bad! This is the goal after all, a life where almost all of your effort is basically all going to extra things they like but don’t feel they need.
Distribution questions should thus come down to “how much redistribution is needed to find the optimal balance between encouraging expanded production vs making sure the largest section of the populace as possible is mostly spending income on luxuries.” I suppose if we’re using the present US presidential race, Rubio represents the edge of the Overton Window that prefers to bias toward production while Sanders is more for the maximize the number of people with luxuries. Which of course might imply some wish-washy moderation between the two is ideal (oddly leading Trump to being closer to ideal…though of course only by ignoring effects on non-current citizens).
But for political actors, viewing the problem like this makes it effectively an empirical issue rather than a values one. It’s much harder to motivate a base of non-expert voters by appealing to “meta-analyses of problem X imply with P<.05 that change Y will produce and R^2 change of .3, therefore we should make change Y" compared to "Change Y demonstrates out commitment to hard work/personal responsibility/caring for the less fortunate/equality in society." So I think there's an incentive in democratic political structures to make differences that are really empirical and based on best available evidence into value propositions. And once making something a value proposition it becomes very difficult to compromise on without seeming like a traitor.
I don't pretend to know the answer to this issue. But getting more people to view issues as empirical divides rather than fundamental ethical concerns seems like it would help.
Part of the problem is an erroneous dichotomous analysis. When the Sandman is Berning to make “healthcare a right, not a privilege”, he falsely implies that these are the only possibilities of provision and use. They are not. A trichotomous analysis along the binary parameters of inherency and universality reveal a third possibility: a benefit. Rights are inherent and universal. Privileges are exherent and exclusive. Benefits are intermediate to these extremes. (Social) benefits are universal, but exherent.
A free public education is a good real-world example. All children have the legal right to a free, public k-12 education. A well-educated populace is essential to a functioning democracy, but the actual (inherent) right to an education redounds on the parents, not the state. The state offers the service (provision and use) as a wise investment in social utility. But for all that, a free, public education is not a right, and cannot be made into one any more than one can have a ‘right’ to experience daylight at night.
A large number of the problems with public education revolve around this misconception. It engenders a corrosive attitude on the part of many if not most of the participants in the system. Students are resentful, teachers cynical, burned out or overwhelmed. Many parents take the service for granted and slough off many of their responsibilities onto the schools.
The essential difference between rights and benefits is that the former actually cannot be lost. When a criminal is incarcerated they haven’t actually lost their rights. They have merely suffered the natural consequence of violating their victim’s. Rights and responsibilities are not two separate things that ‘go together’. They are integral to each other. The subtraction of responsibility from a right leaves license, just as the subtraction of red from violet leaves blue.
Benefits, on the other hand, can be lost if the conditions of the benefit are not met. This is the actual tragedy of the commons.
I guess you don’t agree with the idea that the mere participation of government in a commercial process distorts the market?
In the technical sense from economic theory of efficiency in production and distribution, it undoubtedly distorts markets.
For what I consider the more important but less precise question, of whether it contributes to or detracts from the freedom of the people in the polity to flourish, I do not think it categorically does so, no.
So, if I understand you correctly, this means that while you acknowledge that government participation in market processes reduces efficiency, you disagree that the reduced efficiency corresponds to a reduction in “flourishing.” This must only be true to the extent that society’s ability to flourish is independent of its need for efficient markets.
Or in as much as the economic definition of efficiency is more often than not irrelevant.
Part of McCloskey’s argument, for instance, is that the Great Enrichment had basically nothing to do with economic efficiency; there may be bounds that need to be respected but for the most part the magnitude of the enrichment had nothing to do with allocative or productive efficiency, as technically defined.
The crude way of putting it was that the enrichment has been so big that the kinds of gains economists think about in a fairly fixed-productivity situation from increasing allocative or productive efficiency are peanuts by comparison.
(best place to see her make this argument clearly is probably her critique of the neo-institutionalists http://deirdremccloskey.org/docs/pdf/McCloskey_Neo-Institutionalism.pdf )
Basically, I don’t think _wealth_ is independent from flourishing, but I think that allocative and productive efficiency in their technical senses aren’t nearly as central to wealth as most economists assume.
It all sounds very nice in aggregate.
I guess that depends on the definition of distortion. The government’s fundamental function is the maintenance of justice, which in the context of the market means keeping it free of fraud and compulsion. In a liberal democracy, the majority is free to drive public policy, but not private behavior, other than the protection of inherent rights (so no right to commit murder in the privacy of your own home). There is a qualitative difference between providing a benefit and choosing ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Because the government is unique in having the presumption of the power of compulsion, it is singularly ill-equipped to make such judgments. The government’s legitimate role in the market place is the maintenance of justice, standards and the accounting of externalities.
FWIW, what I mean by “distortion” is any divergence from the price and cost information that exist in a perfectly or monopolistically competitive market.