Edited to add: The original version of this post was marked up wrong, causing it to jump from the middle of the first paragraph to the middle of the fourth. That presumably made it seem pretty incoherent. It’s fixed now. If it made no sense to you before, I hope you’ll give it another shot.
If you read a novel a month, then Anthony Trollope, Philip Roth and William Faulkner (my three current favorites) should be enough to get you through the next 8 years. At that point you can start in on Dostoevsky or (if your memory is like mine) go back to the beginning and it will all seem new again.
There are in the world, far too many superb novels to read in a single lifetime, which makes it pretty hard to justify writing new ones. Even the best of contemporary novelists might well be more usefully employed as, say, an exterminator.
Yet successful novelists receive great rewards that encourage them to continue writing. That’s what we call a market failure — a case where price signals have failed in their mission to direct resources (in this case the novelist’s time and effort) to their most valuable uses.
You can, for example, get the Kindle edition of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! for about $8.50. For the same $8.50, you can get the Kindle edition of, say, Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Either way, you’ll read a terrific book. But if you fork over $8.50 for Gruen’s book, she and her publisher get the message that they’ve given you at least $8.50 worth of value, and they should keep it up. That’s an illusion, because it ignores all the value that was lost when you bypassed the Faulkner.
To put this another way: Your willingness to pay for Gruen is determined by the value that you get from reading a book as opposed to not reading a book. But the social value created by Gruen is determined by the value that you get from reading Gruen as opposed to reading someone else. That social value is, most of the time, far less than your willingness to pay. But the reason markets work so well is that — most of the time — willingness to pay is an accurate gauge of social value. In this case it’s not, so there’s no reason to trust the market.
If it’s hard to justify writing new novels, it’s harder still to justify a system that encourages others to write them.
Because I’m a fan of Sara Gruen, I might well read her next book — and I might even enjoy that book a hair better than whatever book I’d have read instead. But people should not reap great awards for making other people’s lives just a hair better.
We could solve this problem with a hefty tax on contemporary fiction — though you might be squeamish about such a tax, and if called on to explain why, you might use words like “liberty” and “freedom”.
Now let’s talk about carbon emissions. These, too, represent a market failure. Firms produce valuable products (as Sara Gruen writes valuable novels) that nevertheless cause a great deal of carbon-related damage (as Sara Gruen nevertheless causes a great deal of damage to Faulkner’s estate, or to the writers she displaces). Those firms, like Sara Gruen, are rewarded for the good they do but not punished for the negative side effects of their choices. Therefore, they — like Sara Gruen — are encouraged to overproduce. Policymakers have it in their power to remedy that situation via taxes. These are not dissimilar situations.
Question: How do you justify taxing carbon emissions without also taxing novelists?
Let me head off the obvious (but I think faulty) rejoinder that the carbon emitter is intruding on his neighbors’ property rights while Sara Gruen is not. Here’s why I don’t buy that: When we talk about setting policy, we’re implicitly talking about how property rights should be allocated in the first place. When we tax the polluter, we’re declaring that his neighbors have a property right to carbon-free air. If we tax Sara Gruen, we’re declaring that the Faulkner estate has a property right to the attention of potential readers. Neither of those property rights exists ab initio. Instead, they’re created by policies. So a claim that there’s a relevant property right in one case (but not the other) is not an answer to the question; it’s only a rephrasing of the question, viz: “Why is there so much clamor to create and enforce one property right but not the other?”
It is possible, perhaps, to understand why self-interested parties have found it worth their while to fight for carbon taxes but not for authorial taxes. My question is whether there’s a principled reason to tax polluters but not novelists. Anyone?