When I was in college, I took an ECON 101 course. The bedrock of the course was a paper, which, despite my considerable google-fu, I can’t find for the life of me. So, here’s my inadequate attempt to reconstruct the central point from memory:
Some economies are generally meritocratic. Other economies are generally clientelist. In a meritocratic economy, you usually make purchases because someone is providing a good or service that a.) you need and b.) is better than (or provided in a way or for a price that’s better than) all competing services and products that meet your need. In a clientelist economy, you usually make purchases because someone is providing a good or service that a.) you need and b.) you have a kin/clan/patronage relationship with the provider. Whether an economy is meritocratic or clientelist is driven by culture.
The paper was a gross over simplification (hey, it was a 101 course) and touted the benefits of meritocratic economies of clientelist ones. If I remember correctly, it basically used the comparison to explain the so-called “triumph of the west.” Ugh.
Anyway, it’s a staggering oversimplification, but I do remember being struck by the experience when I was visiting Taiwan. I wanted to eat a particular kind of noodle, and my friends wouldn’t let me just go get the noodles I wanted. We had to go across town to where my friend’s cousins ran a noodle place. The kin relationship, not the quality of the good, was paramount. This same kind of thinking kicked in when I needed to replace my suitcase. I wanted to go comparison shopping and get the best suitcase I could find at the best price. The pressure to instead buy it from a friend of a friend was intense. It was a cultural shift that took some getting used to.
Obviously, I’m talking about general trends here. There are plenty of people in overall meritocratic economies who buy things based on kin/friend relationships. There are plenty of people in clientelist economies who buy things based on merit.
But that paper was my first real thinking about economics, and oversimplified and ethnocentric as it was, it stuck with me. I always assumed that I lived in a meritocratic economy, and that was that.
So, I’m visiting my mom for mother’s day this past weekend, and we walk past an independent bookstore in her small-town community of intellectuals and artists. There’s a sign in the window (this is not an exact quote – I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Our store is run and staffed by local artists and writers. We are the people who live and work alongside you. We buy your kids’ girl scout cookies and sit beside you in church. We are the people you see every day. Please remember this when you consider shopping at amazon.”
The argument isn’t, “We provide a better good or service at a competitive price.” The argument is, “You know us. You like us. Support us.”
It’s an argument I see more and more. And I see it the most in the arts, particularly in those sectors of the arts where the Internet has made end-products “non-excludable” (to quote Cory Doctorow). The meritocratic argument falls to pieces in the face of an Internet where any book, painting, movie, song or TV show you want can be had for free, or at an insanely-low “loss-leader” price from an outfit like amazon.
These are the things I think about when I consider Tor’s most recent decision to abandon DRM (of which I strongly approve). In the end, .pdf and .epub files of every book Tor publishes will be available all over the Internet for downloading at a single click. Sure, some will be on sketchy, virus-laden sites, but plenty will just be made available, clean and easy.
For free. If folks are going to pay for them, that’s going to be a conscious choice.
I spend a lot of time obsessing over the fate of publishing and the impact of the Internet on *my* little corner of the economy. Seeing that sign got me to pull the camera back a bit. It’s not just publishing. It’s not just the arts. It’s everything. It’s the whole foundation of how we value things, of how and when and where we chose to spend our money.
And the speed of that foundational change is increasing.