After returning home from 20 years of warring and wandering, the Greek hero Odysseus was confronted by his long-suffering wife, Penelope, who could not accept the homecoming of her husband without personal reassurance, so tested she had been by the gods and the years. So she called for their bed to be dragged from the bridal chamber, sparking Odysseus to shout,
Wife, I am much displeased at what you have just been saying. Who has been taking my bed from the place in which I left it? He must have found it a hard task, no matter how skilled a workman he was, unless some god came and helped him to shift it. There is no man living, however strong and in his prime, who could move it from its place, for it is a marvellous curiosity which I made with my very own hands.
There was a young olive growing within the precincts of the house, in full vigour, and about as thick as a bearing-post. I built my room round this with strong walls of stone and a roof to cover them, and I made the doors strong and well-fitting. Then I cut off the top boughs of the olive tree and left the stump standing. This I dressed roughly from the root upwards and then worked with carpenter’s tools well and skilfully, straightening my work by drawing a line on the wood, and making it into a bed-prop. I then bored a hole down the middle, and made it the centre-post of my bed, at which I worked till I had finished it, inlaying it with gold and silver; after this I stretched a hide of crimson leather from one side of it to the other. So you see I know all about it, and I desire to learn whether it is still there, or whether any one has been removing it by cutting down the olive tree at its roots.
A rooted tree, carved into a bed, with the room and home built up around it. This was the anchor of Odysseus and Penelope’s shared life, the source of knowledge exclusive to them, and the sign by which their marriage was restored after two decades of absence. That is the essence of property, which James Poulos describes as the widely-understood foundation of liberty for the past several centuries.
Now, Poulos fears, property and ownership are going out of vogue, thus imperiling liberty. He says, “In our heart of hearts, and in our rational minds, we have replaced the right to ownership, and its accompanying yearnings, with the right to access.” George W. Bush’s “ownership society” policy push was doomed to failure from the outset, because the advent of the Internet obsolesced ownership, or at least accelerated the process.
The homes that decades of bipartisan policy subsidized were increasingly owned to be flipped, not occupied for the length of the mortgage. Music moved from records and CD’s carefully collected over the years to central databases that could be streamed from anywhere, thanks to Spotify. So with movies before them, with Netflix. Instead of owning cars, we can sign-up for ZipCar, or increasingly just ride in someone else’s via Uber and Lyft. Wireless Internet becomes a “human right,” because it is the means by which we buy access to everything else. It can also be seen as the logic baked into the welfare state, as one no longer needs to own stocks and bonds if one has access to Social Security.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig picks at some of the main examples referenced in Poulos’s piece, writing “It is not immediately clear to me how one ever owns healthcare, abortion, or the internet. This is because these are all services, not goods.” This is more to the point, however. For as MIT economist David Autor (whose significant recent paper I discussed earlier here) described on a recent EconTalk podcast, increasing automation is moving the economic center of gravity for the average person from the production of goods to the provision of services. Capital-intensive factory work and the routinized white-collar work that supported it were the basis of the corporate-industrial economy of the past century. Those jobs, and any that can be routinized with any adequate success, are vulnerable to being replaced by computers and robots that do routine much better.
What is left are the competitive advantages of humans over machines: flexibility, sociality, and empathy. New services like TaskRabbit allow people to monetize their facility in running errands or performing complex tasks like janitorial work. Home health care is an exploding industry, both because of the aging of our population and the economic priority we put on health. What all these occupations share is a general resistance to being outsourced or automated. They are also the definition of unskilled labor. Because they rely, in essence, on the basic set of skills we inherit from being human, they can be done by almost anyone, leaving both wages and job security at a very low level.
If the vast majority of people have an economic future of unskilled service jobs ahead of them, while an increasingly select few program and own the capital-intensive, highly remunerative work of production, then our relationship with property is necessarily going to change. As Poulos wrote, “Policymakers, strategists, and citizens alike need to recognize that a major new political debate is emerging.”
Last week, Hunter Baker took to the pixels of The Federalist to make a charitable case for Ayn Rand, in which he argued,
The good society for an Objectivist is one in which a man stands or falls on his productivity. As Rand explained in her lectures on ethics, she saw production as the one great life-affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth or the sun. He must labor and produce.
Baker argued that Rand would see the industrious factory worker as more virtuous than a crony capitalist industrialist, and that valuing of work and productivity is a virtue that even Christians can admire in Rand’s thought.
The problem with rehabilitating Rand at this point in the course of human events isn’t that she was a militant atheist, a celebrant of narcissism, or any other of her manifestly evil qualities and positions. It’s that she doesn’t matter. Rand is an artifact of the industrial age, when Hank Rearden could smelt his steel with manly independence and grant himself delusions of standing apart from and above the world as a “maker.”
The economy of the 21st century looks increasingly likely to be an economy of service. Instead of “laboring and producing” his sustenance on this earth, man receives his goods from the machines that grow his food at astonishing efficiency, and produce his goods at previously unthinkable rates. What does he do with himself after that? Some on the left would like to grant him a basic income, an annual cash grant to every person to liberate him from the tyranny of necessity. Others on the right continue to labor under the idea of entrepreneurial production, whereby a man will pull himself up by his bootstraps by producing. Neither of these options are suited to an economy of service.
Instead of dabbling in the dead philosophies of our industrial past, Christians and conservatives can begin to sketch out how the offering of ourselves to others in free exchange can take place in a cultural context that borrows heavily from the ideas of sacred service embedded in Christianity for the past two millennia. Plenty of economic structures will have to be worked out in a world where, as Autor notes, people will have more attenuated claims on the wealth still produced by the investment of capital by “superstars,” as Tyler Cowen puts it. But the mindsets and philosophies that guide those structures will also have to be reformed. The virtue of market exchange is that it drives us together, to offer what we have to one another. And the promptings of necessity are likely an essential glue to that virtuous system.
And yet, as Poulos points out, access to goods is not the same as property. What Odysseus and Penelope shared above is not accessible by means of Airbnb. Pre-industrial property grounds one in place, and family, and tradition. As Kate Benner describes at Bloomberg View, TaskRabbit, Uber, and other on-demand services are by nature fleeting and relatively impersonal means of financial support. They can serve well to supplement some income around the margins, but they do not embed a person in a community in the same way as tending a storefront.
Even as we adapt to the latest set of disruptions and economic changes, even as we potentially can refashion our relationship to each other and our finances through ideas of sacred service, we should take care that we do not become so mobile and adaptable that we lose our traditions “by cutting down the olive tree at its roots.”