Amazon’s Retail Venture And The Importance Of Civility
To publishers and authors, it sometimes seems the giant on-line retailer Amazon is determined to monopolize the book business. Step by step they have moved inexorably in that direction.
They went from selling books which were provided to them by the usual publishers in the usual way, to selling that recently arrived oddity, eBooks, to building their proprietary Kindle eBook reader, to attempts to set the market prices for traditionally published books, to offering public domain books for free, to an on-line lending library, to actually printing books. Now, incredibly, Amazon has gone full circle to selling books at bricks and mortar retail outlets.
Meanwhile competitors in the publishing world are suddenly fighting for their lives, and in many cases, dying.
These are troubling developments for some. It really does seem like we could end up with a single company in control of every aspect of the written word, from writing to reading. If that happened, could rampant propaganda and censorship be far behind?
It’s tempting to consider alternatives. For the first time in generations, suggestions that socialism might be the way to go have been taken seriously in the mainstream news media.
When faced with an insatiable corporate monster determined to assume complete control of something as essential to human society as the written word, is socialism the answer? At least if publishing were nationalized –as the automotive, home mortgage and health insurance industries have been effectively nationalized — then Americans could rest easy, knowing they control the printed word instead of leaving such a precious resource in the hands of a few greedy men in a board room.
Actually, not so much. History has shown that the best antidote to greedy men in a board room is usually not the government; it’s more greedy men in another board room. The capitalist system feeds on greed, and it is that greed which causes the Amazons of the world to rise up and monopolize entire markets. But the genius of the capitalist system is the way it uses that the greed of one company to control the greed of another.
Socialism, on the other hand, relies on something for more dangerous: socialism depends on virtue.
Any system which assumes that human beings will do the right thing depends on human virtue to succeed is bound to fail. Remember your American history classes. The Founders had to compromise on slavery just to get a constitution ratified. And remember the Robber Barons during the industrial revolution, putting mom-and-pop companies out of business by the thousands with the invention of the assembly line. We’re seeing an almost exact parallel to the industrial revolution today, with Amazon using new technology to change the basic way goods and services are provided. Meanwhile the old mom-and-pop way of doing business (traditional publishing and bookselling) is being wiped out. But this is no reason to abandon the system America was built upon.
Whether it’s capitalism, socialism or communism, in a fallen world human power always seeks a monopoly. Any attempt to organize human behavior which fails to allow for the corrosive effect of power on the human spirit is doomed to become a totalitarian system. That’s one reason why capitalism makes more sense than socialism. Capitalism acknowledges greed and depends on the dueling forces of competition to keep it in check, whereas socialism establishes only one power base (government) with no objective and innate restraint on the lust for power of those who most directly control that power base (bureaucrats).
Another advantage of capitalism over socialism is the use of money instead of votes to determine success or failure, since the effect of money is more immediate and objective, while votes are less directly connected to results and more easily manipulated. (This leads to a discussion of the long-term corrosive effects of credit on a capitalistic society, but that’s another column.)
But this is not an argument for unrestrained capitalism.
The same original sin that makes all people inherently greedy also corrupts all human systems, no matter how well they may be designed to deal with greed. That’s why even capitalism sometimes needs external checks and balances.
Remember your junior high American history class again: at one point Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled about 90% of the oil in the USA. (Visualize Exxon with nearly complete control over gas prices, and you’ll get the idea.) The U.S. government had to step in with the Sherman Act to outlaw monopolies. Without such an outside force to regulate competition, it’s possible Amazon might indeed one day kill off all competition in its market, and then we would still have a dictatorship in control of all publishing in the USA, except in that case we’d call them a board of directors.
It’s difficult to see how the result would be distinguishable from the Soviet Union’s old “State Committee For Publishing”.
Because one cannot count on human virtue, it’s never wise to adhere too rigidly to any single human ideology. The Founders’ acknowledgement of that at the start of the American experiment was the stroke of genius that made America successful. They did not demand a pure economic model. Although their personal beliefs were at least as dearly held as ours are today, the Founders allowed for slavery in some cases but not in others, because they knew without such a compromise the states could not have been united.
Since human nature has not changed, the principle still applies. If we continue to allow ourselves to be divided into two camps — conservative and liberal — which fight against each other tooth and claw, flinging insults and refusing to compromise, we risk ending up with a purely capitalistic or a purely socialistic society. Ironically, in that case it would not really matter which set of ideas prevailed. A pure and perfect system managed by Big Business or Big Government would look much the same, with an elite group in control of the necessities of life.
Surely none of us wants that.