I used to subscribe to Reason magazine, but recently let it lapse because they’re a little too hard-line, a little to heartily chomping at the bit for free markets. I agree that the market is a powerful force and can accomplish a lot. I even enjoy the occasional thought experiment in just how far market economics could take us. But not every month, month after month.
But then I run across something that reminds me there was a time when the market was all, when things like political correctness and human decency had a different definition. For example, apparently the successful care of premature babies was pioneered (and financed) via a carnival sideshow on Coney Island. If making premies entertain the public to pay their own way isn’t market economics at work, I don’t know what is. And no matter how distasteful and offensive we find this today, we have to admit that it worked. Incubators and other technologies were developed that wouldn’t normally have been, via willing, market-driven public contributions. In a way I guess this is no different from reality television, where people give up their privacy and self-respect for a chance at a million dollars. And frankly, in our current culture of baby-worship, this idea is a little refreshing. It makes me wonder if maybe we have other untapped markets to work with. For example, could cancer patients agree to have drug company (or insurance company, for that matter) logos painted on their bald heads in exchange for free chemotherapy drugs? Could really well-built people be encouraged to tattoo the 24-Hour Fitness logo on their biceps in exchange for a free membership?
Why not? Because this is the forgotten side of economics. In the new economy, we are all first and only consumers. We may, additionally, be cogs in a production machine. But we are not producers. And we are not products. It takes true entrepreneurs to make this connection, to personally produce and productize. And to be willing to break some taboos to do it. We’ve got porn, prostitution and reality TV, industries where people literally sell themselves. But I think there are more opportunities waiting out there. And it’s not human nature that’s keeping us from exploiting them, but merely social mores and conventions, and those change over time. Maybe it’s time we shook off our delusions surrounding work. Time we stopped denying that we are selling ourselves, cheap, every time we show up at work on time and put in effort for a set salary. This used to be call “time selling” by the late-night TV self-help hucksters, who considered it the purview of chumps and suckers. That’s a nice irony, but one of the central skills of the huckster is understanding and exploiting a fact that most of us ignore. Maybe we need to start thinking more like hucksters. Maybe it’s time we stepped back and took a look at what we really need in life, what skills and assets we really have to offer, and thought about a disintermediated way to connect them. Because everything else is just helping out “the man.”
In case the Times “archives” the referenced article, here’s a PDF.