OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn his book, “Who Owns The Future?” Jaron Lanier offers a suggestion for how to save the middle classes.

Well, there’s a lot of ways. I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.

I have, somewhat jokingly, referred to Jaron Lanier’s plans as a “Forward to the Middles Ages” plan. The problem is that this isn’t actually all that much of a joke, it’s an apt description of what he thinks we all should be doing.

My example today involves a horse massager (seriously, who knew that existed as a practise, let alone a job?) in Arizona. She’s gone off and learnt how to do this and now the State would like to throw her in jail for the temerity of doing this without having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the right licence.

Massage therapists do not need a medical degree to massage humans, but entrepreneurs like Celeste who want to massage animals in Arizona must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend four years of veterinary school where they are not even required to learn massage.

The connection with Mr. Lanier is not obvious, unless we think he might be a horse to be massaged. But this is actually at the heart of his plan to protect middle class America:

Well, a lot of your book is about the survival of the middle class in the digital age, the importance of a broad middle class as we move forward. You argue that the middle class, unlike the rich and the poor, is not a natural class but was built and sustained through some kind of intervention. Has that changed in the last decade or two as the digital world has grown?

Well, there’s a lot of ways. I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.

In a raw kind of capitalism there tend to be unstable events that wipe away the middle and tend to separate people into rich and poor. So these mechanisms are undone by a particular kind of style that is called the digital open network.

There it is, he’s in favour of these sorts of barriers to people just learning how to do something and then doing it. There must be that licensure, there must be those barriers to entry otherwise people will find their incomes competed away. Which is, I’m afraid to have to say it, an entirely fuckwit manner in which to try and run an economy.

Allow me to introduce you to Adam Smith. Among those hundreds of pages of 18th century prose than none of us bother reading any more were these two gems:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices…. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.

You will, I hope, immediately see the relevance of these two. In fact, what most of those hundreds of pages of Wealth of Nations is about is a railing against just that Medieval economy where you had to be a guild member to be able to do anything. On exactly the same logic that Lanier himself is using: how can we all make a decent living if anyone who can just do the job is allowed to compete with us, the Master Craftsmen?

Smith’s answer, and the one that has created this vast wealth in this modern economy that we all enjoy, is that we should give not a fig for the interests of the producers. And most certainly we shouldn’t allow them to get together in order to conspire to limit access to any craft, trade or profession. For by doing so we enable them to screw over the consumer in protection of those, umm, “middle class” incomes. For what actually happens if anyone and everyone is allowed to compete as a producer is that the price of those things produced falls so much that we are all able to consume like the middle class. Or, as has happened since Smith wrote, even the merest minion labouring in the bowels of industrial capitalism gets to consume like an aristocrat of old.

Precisely and exactly because we don’t go around trying to protect producer incomes at the expense of consumers.

I’ve absolutely no problem at all with people putting forward what they believe are ideas to make a better world. But I would rather hope that they’d have a quick gander the previous times those solutions have been offered and the arguments against them. Nothing all that detailed you understand, but just enough to get a flavour. You know, Soviet communism didn’t work because killing all the bright people isn’t a way to advance the economy, a medieval guild economy was replaced by industrial capitalism precisely because guilds are methods to screw the consumer?

As to Lanier himself I would hope for even just a smidgeon of self-awareness. He appears to have, or to have had, academic posts and yet he does not have the commonly required licensure for such, an earned PhD. He performs and composes music which must be most annoying to those with the relevant qualifications and licences from music schools and conservatories. And he’s made his living developing new things, where of course it is impossible to have a licence in some field of study or work that does not as yet exist.And his forays into economics are markedly naked of any actual knowledge of the subject let alone qualifications.

But perhaps licences are merely things that we proles who serve the New Renaissance men need to have rather than something that applies to those Godlike beings themselves. Or perhaps I am being unkind. Perhaps he is only ignorant and unreflective rather than the opinion he engenders in me, of hypocrisy.

[Image credit: Una Smith (Creative Commons)]