Among the many absurdities in Jonathan Coppage’s recent article for the American Conservative, “The End of Ownership and the Obsolescence of Ayn Rand,” is Coppage’s claim that Rand no longer matters, because the producers of physical goods no longer matter. Rand “doesn’t matter,” writes Coppage, because she “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.’”
I’ll leave aside Coppage’s claim that Rearden was delusional; readers of Atlas Shrugged can judge for themselves. I’ll also leave aside Coppage’s various smears and absurdities not mentioned here.
Coppage’s central claim is that, in the modern age, “property and ownership are going out of vogue”; thus, the producers of physical goods are no longer important. He states, “The economy of the 21st century looks increasingly likely to be an economy of service.” He then claims that some people “on the right continue to labor under the idea of entrepreneurial production, whereby a man will pull himself up by his bootstraps by producing,” but, Coppage claims, such production is not “suited to an economy of service.” Coppage envisions an economy based not on property, ownership, and production, but one based on “the ideas of sacred service embedded in Christianity for the past two millennia.”
Coppage’s bizarre and incoherent claims are rooted in (among other things) his fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of property and the importance of ownership of property. Contrary to Coppage’s claims, services in a market economy are fundamentally dependent on the ownership of property—both physical and intellectual—not somehow untethered from it. How so?
Consider some of the examples Coppage invokes: Rather than own DVDs and CDs of films and music, people now frequently stream films and music via services provided by Netflix and the like. “Instead of owning cars, we can sign-up for ZipCar, or increasingly just ride in someone else’s via Uber and Lyft.” And people get much of their news, entertainment, and social interaction via services provided by Internet companies.
But, in order for any such values to exist, people must produce physical and intellectual goods, and they must have and retain ownership of those goods if they are to rightfully use them and prevent others (including government) from seizing them. The owners of Netflix own the company and its holdings, and they pay fees to owners of assorted movies, videos, or television shows in order to legally stream them. Netflix’s customers typically own their television sets and other electronic devices. Film producers either own such things as cameras, studios, and assorted equipment, or else lease them from other parties who own them. The owners of Uber own that company and its holdings, and they contract with drivers who own their own cars. The providers of Internet services own their companies, their cables, their maintenance equipment, and so on.
Consider some examples Coppage doesn’t mention. Someone who works at an auto factory provides the service of helping to manufacture cars. He then owns the wealth that he is paid for his services, and the owners of the auto factory own the cars they pay him to help produce. My massage therapist owns her massage table and various other tools, and she pays rent to the owners of the building out of which she operates. In all cases, the provision of services in a market economy rests on ownership of property, whether physical or intellectual.
Services have always been part of a division of labor economy, and they always will be. The relative size of the service sector has no bearing on the underlying significance and need of property ownership. The fact that relatively more people produce services today does not diminish the vital importance of the production of physical and intellectual goods, which every service provider uses in various capacities.
The Hank Reardens of the world, the industrial “makers” whom Coppage demeans, continue to play a fundamental role in the economy, and they always will. Let’s hope it is not the case that conservatives will always think in such muddled ways and take potshots at heroic producers such as Hank Rearden and Ayn Rand.