Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Pro-Business versus Pro-Business: Mistaking Universals for Particulars

     One of the ways in which our thoughts often seem to go astray is in the ambiguity of how we can use nouns in English. If I say, for example, "I believe in the rights of the individual to freedom of speech and belief," you might reasonably ask (particularly if you're not a native English speaker), "Which individual?"
     Of course, that's a pretty obvious one, and just about everyone knows that in that kind of context, speaking of "the individual" really refers to all individuals. Yet I think that sometimes it's dangerously easy to slip into that trap, and to mistake the particular for the universal and vice versa.
     In particular, I'm thinking of how often politicians fall into the trap of thinking that if they help a particular business or even a particular industry sector, they're "pro-business" in the abstract universal sense, rather than just being pro-that-business. I used to think, when I was younger and even more cynical, that it was simply corruption, that the politicians were deliberately helping their cronies and disingenuously proclaiming themselves as pro-business or pro-free-enterprise. But now I'm not so sure, and even if that is the case, I feel obliged in good faith to charitably assume it's a subtle (and corrigible) cognitive error, perhaps the very one I'm describing here.
     It's not that far-fetched, after all. The arguments that implementing policies to benefit a particularly important employer in the community will create jobs and bring prosperity can be pretty persuasive, and may actually be true in many cases. It might well be the case sometimes that keeping a particular factory or mine open is in the general interest of a community. And so it can be very easy to slide into the ambiguity of thinking, without any deliberate corruption or cronyism, that being (generally) pro-business actually means helping out particular companies or businesses, even awarding them monopolies at the expense of other businesses.
     Of course, that's not what it means at all, or it's not what it is supposed to mean. Being pro-business in terms of policy means fostering an environment in which businesses generally can flourish, not simply where one particular business is better off. But I can understand, now, how one could make that honest mistake.
     It's even easier to make that mistake when a well-organized business interest lobbies for some concession or handout and manages to present itself as representing the entire industry, or a majority of the community. This is a common tactic whenever a professional sports team asks for a new stadium; they play up how popular it'll be with all the sports fans (and of course every respectable politician is a loyal fan of the home team, right?) and how many jobs will be created and how local businesses will benefit. It's not always true, but it gets a lot of momentum and it becomes hard to challenge the conventional wisdom established: new arena = boost to local business generally.
     I think we're seeing the same thing right now with the music and film recording industries, and their aggressive lobbying for reforms to copyright law. They present themselves as representing artists, and of course it's true they do represent some artists, but by no means all and in fact, only a rather tiny minority of artists, generally those who have enjoyed some degree of commercial success. Those who don't have a contract with a label, or roles in Hollywood establishment films, are simply not included.
     Here's an example of how measures intended to help "artists" can end up harming artists. Years ago, when I was in a garage band, we set out to make a demo tape. (In those days, the late 80's or so, we actually used tape.) Since we were going to be renting a high-quality reel-to-reel unit, rather than an ordinary old cassette, we had to go buy a proper reel of tape for it. We were a little surprised to discover that there was a surtax to be paid on such recording media, to go towards paying royalties to the established artists whose work would presumably be pirated onto some of the recording media sold.
     Now, think about that for a moment. I'm not insensitive to the plight of recording artists who lose sales of their music to piracy, but look who was paying for it! Here we were, wanting to record our own performance of our own original compositions, and we were being forced to pay good money to musicians (or perhaps more accurately, their recording companies) who were already established and commercially successful. It was a regressive tax that rewarded established musicians for their past success, while discouraging new creative talent from even getting started.
     Yet I don't doubt for a minute that the politicians who passed that law sincerely felt that they were really helping artists generally, even though they were helping some particular artists at the expense of a great many more. And they were able to think that, in part, because our language has an inherent ambiguity between particulars and universals: "the artist" can mean "this artist" or "all artists", just as "the individual" or "business" can be arbitrarily extended or narrowed by context.

     So, I suppose, the point of today's sermon is this: Be wary whenever someone (including you) speaks in apparent generalities, and if there's any doubt, insist on clarification. Are you really talking about all artists, or all businesses, or all citizens, or only a particular subset? It's okay to speak for just the subset, of course, but just be clear about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment