Last night, as I listened to the Republican debate, I was surprised to hear my own profession called out by name. I am a professor of philosophy. Accordingly, I was taken aback when I heard Marco Rubio’s assertion that welders make more than philosophers. This claim is false.
But even if it were true, it would not show, as Rubio seems to think it does, that our country needs more welders and fewer philosophers. For that supposes that the social worth of a profession tracks the market price it commands in the current economy. And this too is false.
It is false for at least two reasons. First, it is false because current market prices are distorted by a wide range of diseconomies that have funneled virtually all gains from the recovery into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans. The US economy shovels massive externalities – costs and risks that fall on those who don’t incur them – onto working people, future generations, and the natural environment, while the wealthy few hoard the benefits. One particularly important case is carbon pollution. Because market prices do not reflect these externalities, all prices in the economy are distorted, including the price of labor and the prices of the machines that replace human labor. So there is no reason to think that the price my labor commands in the current economy is the price my labor would command in an actual market -- an economy where costs were internalized, that is, paid by those who produce them. The day I hear Republicans talk about making polluters pay is the day I’ll begin to believe that they care about genuinely free markets.
But even if we made it so that rich people could not offload costs onto poor people, it would still not be the case that the social worth of a profession would be determined by the price its members could command on a market. Market prices reflect supply and demand. If there is a glut of X and a shortage of Y, the price of X goes down and that of Y goes up. It has nothing to do with the social worth of either thing. Worth is a completely different issue; English teachers, social workers, poets, and of course, Republican presidential candidates, are currently in higher supply than demand; this diminishes their wages and employment opportunities in these fields, but it says nothing at all about their social role or value.
It works in the other direction, too. "Avatar" was not the best film ever, even though it was the highest-grossing. Of the 10 biggest team payrolls in Major League Baseball, six failed to make the playoffs; neither team in the World Series was higher than 16th. Nor was “casino mogul and reality TV star” the most socially worthwhile profession represented on last night’s stage, but Donald Trump was indeed the wealthiest person up there. Carly Fiorina – incidentally, a philosophy major – was the second, but many HP investors doubt her business acumen. Parking lot attendants earn about the same wage as childcare workers, but even Marco Rubio would not think that cars are as valuable as children.
Why would anyone confuse these obviously different things – market value and social worth? What kind of person would assume without justification or explanation that an endeavor (or a person’s) value, derives solely from the amount of money it can make?
A market economy is a tool for securing human welfare and promoting human freedom. It may or may not be effective at those things, but either way, that’s what it is: a tool. Sadly, the contemporary Republican Party has elevated that tool into a religion, bowing before it and disparaging those who don't.
We need some philosophers to scrutinize that religion’s dogmas, and we need some welders to help dismantle its gaudy temples.
And we need to pay both the philosophers and the welders a living wage.