Looking Behind Preferences

Larry Solum has weighed in on a recent discussion of cultural economics in a characteristically interesting and rigorous way. Solum observes that

[N]ormative law and economics does not capture the full spectrum of values that are implicated in the debate over [the market for digital music]. . . . One well-know problem concerns the notion that preferences are “given” and not themselves subject to evaluation on independent . . . moral grounds. This problem is nicely illustrated by the context of so-called “culture” industries–where market power may translate into the power to shape preferences. If this is the case, then it might well be true that a market structure that is superior when evaluated by standard of quantifiable costs and benefits–that is, in terms of consumer welfare quantified in economic terms–could nonetheless be inferior once preferences themselves are seen as “good” or “bad” or as contributing to flourishing or impoverished lives. To bring that down to earth, it might be that a market structure that encourages a plurality of shapers of musical taste could result in richer preference structures but less music at a higher cost.

I think that’s exactly right, and want to provide some philosophical and practical backing for these ideas:

1) Practically, Guy Pessach has demonstrated how

[T]he advantages that extensive copyright protection grants large-scale corporate media [help] prevent alternative, noninfringing creative materials from [effectively competing] for the public’s attention . . . . by enabling commercialized media to deepen their market dominance and the cultural centrality of their products through ancillary and derivative markets, and . . . by producing a “solidarity value” for the commercialized and commodified nature of media products.

In other words, extensive copyright protection allows dominant players not merely to own cultural artifacts like the Seinfeld show, but also to own the conversation about them (by, say, blocking the publication of a “Seinfeld Quiz Book”). And as dominant players come to “own” more and more such conversations, they may well tend to control them so as to focus interests on the commodified mass entertainment that comprise their core assets. Benkler focuses on these issues in Wealth of Networks (196 ff.). One needn’t subscribe to a theory of false consciousness to see the problems this may cause.

2. Philosophically, I think Raz is the best source for the general idea that autonomy is only possible in a context of adequate choices: “If having an autonomous life is an ultimate value, then having a sufficient range of acceptable options is of intrinsic value, for it is constitutive of an autonomous life that it is lived in circumstances where acceptable alternatives are present” (Morality of Freedom, 205). That’s one reason why I think at least some of the money collected via copyright enforcement should be allocated to musical education–so people have a better sense of the range of musical traditions they may enjoy.

3. Finally, a few words of wisdom from Tyler Cowen’s recent book Good and Plenty (8-9):

The economic approach . . . performs best when the distribution of wealth is given, preferences are fixed and well defined, and the policy change in question is a small one. Perhaps economics can tell us whether we should build an extra stadium in St. Louis, but it is less well suited for analyzing the entirety of arts policy. Often art consumers do not know what they want until it is before them, which vitiates the fixed-preference assumption.

Exactly right. In other words, the critical power in culture may not be the power to create, but the power to highlight and promote given works. This is why I want to see diversity in digital music services, and categorizers generally.

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