Traditional book reviews tend to focus on a single book, such as Just Giving by Rob Reich. We ought, however, to be reviewing a broader question: what is the role of books in a liberal democratic society? And what role should they play?
Books were first invented during the early Bronze Age. Plato states people fiercely opposed the first books; in his dialogue Phaedrus, he recalls the Egyptian priests’ objection to early writing:
[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Contrast the Egyptian scribes’ reception with the ceaseless praise given to the authors of our age. Rather than asking about the purposes of writing and the power of authors, we tend instead to celebrate writers, large and small, for their brilliance. But in our age, these are questions we should pose with greater urgency. Scholarly literature like Just Giving is an unaccountable, nontransparent, and perpetual exercise of power. It deserves more criticism than it has received.
There’s a conventional story to tell about book-writing and its relation to liberty. The story is this. Book-writing is thought to be tightly connected to liberty. This is so for two reasons. First, writing or reading a book is voluntary. Second, the exercise of liberty involves freedom of speech. This story is an attractive one, and it contains some truth. But it ignores that book-writing is inherently embedded in state institutions, like intellectual property laws. It should not be understood in the simplistic manner of an activity that takes place within a framework of nonintervention by the state, or as nothing more than private individual decisions to express thoughts. Instead, it must be understood as embedded in political institutions, laws, and public policy. Books may not be an invention of the state, but they are an artifact of it.
Most importantly, book-writing is heavily subsidized by the government. Authors receive a “pass-through” tax deduction of up to 20%. In addition, they can deduct most of the expenses they incur in writing a book, from freelance editing to literary agents to promotional events. In extending these tax incentives, federal and state treasuries forego tax revenue. Or to put it differently, tax incentives for writing books constitute a a kind of spending program. In fact, the fiscal effects of a direct spending program and a tax expenditure are exactly the same. In Suzanne Mettler’s apt phrase, federal policy driven by tax expenditures rather than direct spending constitutes the “submerged state”, obscured from public view and accountability, but with powerful distributional consequences. These tax breaks amount to massive federal and state subsidies for the creation and dissemination of written texts. They are supplemented by millions spent on libraries, literacy programs, and in some cases direct subsidies to book publishers.
A respect for the liberty of individuals to promote their views is one thing; subsidizing its exercise is another. The state does not merely permit and set guidelines within which writing takes place – offering the state’s imprimatur to every book and pamphlet and magazine and journal article – but is in a fiscally meaningful way actively participating in what authors do. If the state is actively funding, through a tax expenditure, some bad book, it makes the state partially complicit in the harm that the book causes. It is no exaggeration to say that as book-writing is currently structured, when authors do harm, so does the state. It is incorrect to say that mediocre books merely waste the time of the author and reader. Rather, writing a mediocre book squanders assets that are partially the public’s.
With this description of the relationship between book-writing and liberty in place, let us now consider whether the ideal of equality is playing any role in the institutional design of the policies. The median annual wage of authors is $62,000, twice the average US income of $31,000. Authors are most likely to be college-educated, upper class, and be the sorts of people who can take months off of their jobs to write a book. Scholarly books are often written by professors, a member of a tiny and unelected intellectual elite. This makes their immense ability to exercise power by writing a book and getting it published deeply troubling. Or consider a famous author like Jeffrey Sachs, whose successful books permit him to stride upon the world stage as if he were a head of state.
Perhaps books could play important roles in democratic societies, despite being an exercise of power and expression of plutocratic voice, if they were subject to different legal arrangements. But it is no coincidence that the wealthy dominate book-writing. The tax code is set up to unfairly privilege books by the well-off over the poor in two ways. First, the pass-through deduction and freelance editor deduction are available only to those individuals who itemize their deductions – people who opt not to take the so-called standard deduction on their income tax. This effectively penalizes, or fails to reward and provide an incentive for, all people who do not itemize their deductions, a group that constitutes roughly 70% of taxpayers. Thus the low-income renter who does not itemize her deductions but pays $500 to get their book edited receives no tax concession, while the high-income house owner who pays the same $500 fee can claim a deduction. Second, the tax subsidy given to those who do receive the deduction possesses what is known as an “upside-down effect”. The deduction functions as an increasingly greater subsidy with every higher step in the income tax bracket. Both of these features of the tax code are arbitrary and unfairly benefit the well-off. The choice of the the pass-through and business expenses tax deductions as the preferred tax policy for book-writing introduces a potent plutocratic bias.
Proponents of books might suggest that they nevertheless serve a compelling public interest in the form of spreading knowledge. But when we move away from individual works and consider the total distribution of literature, we find a pattern of writing that is hard to reconcile with expectations of educational outcomes. For anyone who believes that books imply something about knowledge or truth or education, the sunny picture of American book publishing here becomes decidedly cloudy.
Figure 1 demonstrates that the most popular type of book in the US is “mystery, thriller, or true crime”. Second and third place are held by history and biographies, which may perhaps be edifying to some people. But after that we get romance, cookbooks, science fiction, and fantasy. Literary classics and books on important current affairs are far down the list, only a fraction of total books read. What can we conclude from these data? The lesson is obvious: if we believe the purpose of reading and writing to be predominantly educational, an important mechanism to provide for our enlightenment and edification, the actually existing distribution of reading in the United States does not meet the test. Not by a long shot.
Finally, we must address the question of intergenerational justice. Books are designed to enshrine author intent and express their opinions in perpetuity. Thus does the dead hand of the author potentially extend from beyond the grave to strangle future generations. John Stuart Mill famously wrote that “There is no fact in history which posterity will find it more difficult to understand, than the idea of perpetuity, and that any of the contrivances of man, should have been coupled together in any sane mind.” Yet authors deliberately “write for the ages”, producing works that can be studied for hundreds or even thousands of years.
We might ask whether books would be a welcome institutional arrangement if we were designing a democratic society from scratch. The catalogue of the oddities of the book suggests a strong case against. Books appear at odds with democracy, for they represent, by definition and by law, the expression of plutocratic voices directed to public education. But why, in a democracy, should the size of one’s wallet give one a greater say in public policy? Why should this plutocratic voice be subsidized by the public? And why should democracy allow this voice to extend across generations in the form of intellectual property laws? It would seem that books are a misplaced plutocratic and powerful element in a democratic society. And we can trace, in the evolution of books, the emergence of a particular kind of high-profile author such as Dan Brown, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling, whose activity supplants the state, subverts public education processes, and in so doing diminishes democracy.
I find many points of agreement, especially when considering the actual content of books today. Yet despite all this, I think a role for books can be defended. First, books can help overcome problems in the marketplace of ideas by diminishing government orthodoxy and decentralizing the production of knowledge. Second, because of their size and longevity, books can operate on a different and longer timeline than government propaganda broadcasts, taking risks in the expression of ideas we should not routinely expect to see in press releases by government agencies.
This argument is not intended to justify the full range of legal permissions currently afforded to books, but it provides hints as to what a just literary world might look like. I worry, for instance, about the massive boom in short books. Books with fewer than 150 pages primarily serve the author’s vanity. What loss to public benefit would there be with a minimum page length to publish a book, say 250 or 300 pages? I think very little, and quite possibly there would be some gain, for people with less exciting ideas who could not reach the page threshold might be convinced to help other people with their books rather than writing their own. But even if books of all lengths do partly decentralize the definition and provision of knowledge, the resulting pluralism of literary voices will have a plutocratic, not fully democratic, cast. The experimental or heterodox opinions in books will represent the preferences of the wealthy, not of the wider citizenry. Indeed, there is empirical evidence to suggest that at least in the United States, the very wealthy have significantly more politically conservative preferences than average citizens. Thus, the activity of books, even when it decentralizes the production of knowledge, retains a plutocratic character. Does this mean that we should eliminate books? I do not think so. Perhaps a plutocratic tempering of government orthodoxy is better than no tempering at all. I conclude that the decentralization argument provides a plausibly but not definitive case for books as a democracy-supporting institutional design in our society.
In conclusion, how can we make books more compatible with a democratic society? I propose that instead of giving authors tax deductions, they might receive a certain percent of their expenses paid back to them by the government, capped at $100, and that books with fewer than 150 pages should be banned. Are books democratically required? I am not prepared to answer this question affirmatively, for a democratic government has multiple mechanisms to cultivate pluralism and foster discovery. But I have shown that books are certainly democratically permissible.
Yeah, okay, that was weird.
But I put the blame squarely on the hands of Rob Reich, author of Just Giving. The structure, arguments, and most of the individual sentences are his, not mine. I just changed the word “charity” to “books”, and replaced all the charity-related examples with book-related examples. A few parts were edited slightly to make them flow together better, and a few sentences are entirely my own, summarizing parts of the argument that wouldn’t fit into a short blog post.
I wrote this weird edited pastiche/summary because I couldn’t figure out how else to express my frustration at Just Giving. The book does not conclude that philanthropy is bad. In the end, it comes out saying that philanthropy is potentially okay and can serve a useful purpose, although the tax incentives around it are weird and should be structured better. But along the way it manages to darkly hint that philanthropy is bad about two hundred times on every page. Nothing in the book is wrong. But a lot of the right things in it are fully general counterarguments that demand charity display a level of rigor that nothing else has. And the author’s interviews and summaries mostly keep the dark hinting while watering down the “actually it is okay” part so much it becomes almost invisible. The resulting style could be used to condemn not just charity but any productive human activity, including the writing of Just Giving itself.
For example: charity is not just an activity that takes place in a void. It takes place in a human society. So far, so good – nothing takes place in a void, except maybe space travel. But the book manages to darkly hint that because this is true, any regulation on it is justified. It never says this. In the end it doesn’t even want to regulate charity. But if you started feeling creeped out by sentences above like “books should not be understood in the simplistic manner of an activity that takes place within a framework of nonintervention by the state, or as nothing more than private individual decisions to express thoughts” or “writing a mediocre book squanders assets that are partially the public’s” – if you started thinking “Wait, is he pushing totalitarianism?” – well, both of those are pretty direct quotes from Just Giving, and the originals gave me the same level of unease about charity.
Or: it’s true that there’s a sense in which if the state gives someone a tax deduction for something, it is subsidizing their activity. And it’s true that authors can deduct some of their book-writing expenses from their tax bill. But it seems troubling to go from there to calling book-writing “part of the submerged state, obscured from public view and accountability”, or to say that now “the state is partially complicit in the harm caused by bad books”. Yet both of these are real Just Giving sentences too. I find myself much less attached to the tax deduction for authors’ business expenses (which may or may not be useful, no strong opinions) than to the project of preventing people from saying things like “Making sure books are good is kind of the responsibility of the state, isn’t it?”
Or: it’s true that authors just write whatever they want. You could describe this as making them “unaccountable and nontransparent”, and “at odds with democracy”. But at some point you might think things like “Wait a second, isn’t democracy perfectly compatible with private individuals doing their own thing? Are you sure you’re not thinking of totalitarianism?” Normally I would add something like “…and these considerations become immediately apparently when we’re talking about writing books, which makes this a classic case of proving too much“, except that to me they also become immediately apparent when we’re talking about philanthropy, so there must just be some fundamental disconnect going on here.
In a few sections, I “cheated” by using Just Giving‘s sentences or paragraphs about charitable foundations, rather than philanthropy in general. Reich is not necessarily worried about every charitable donation making “the dead hand of the donor potentially [extend] from beyond the grave to strangle future generations” (yes, this is a real quotation from the book), only about donations from foundations doing that. Still, might this be a little dramatic? Reich treats it as self-evident that permanent foundations are bizarre, maybe literally the most bizarre thing, quoting John Stuart Mill’s opinion that charitable foundations are “among the grossest and most conspicuous abuses of the time” and that the necessity of banning foundations that outlast their founder’s lifetime is “so obvious that he can scarcely conceive how any earnest inquirer could think otherwise”. Unfortunately for Mill, this is not at all obvious to me, and I was left baffled on this point which the book kind of assumed to be a natural human instinct. Why should my ability to control my donations be limited by something as random as my lifespan? If Bill Gates happens to get hit by a truck tomorrow, does this coincidence have some sort of important moral bearing on how the Gates Foundation’s money should be spent? If we decree it does, this leads to odd conclusions, like that the most important effective altruist cause in the world is encasing Bill Gates in an impenetrable steel shell so that nothing can possibly harm him – do we endorse this use of resources? If we oppose foundations, is Bill Gates still allowed to leave all his money to the single person in the world most aligned with his values, and then hope really hard that this person doesn’t betray him? Isn’t part of the point of law to abstract out things like “people might betray you” and replace them with comfortable ironclad contracts?
(a confession: my point about books being a perpetual exercise of the author’s power in the same way foundations are a perpetual exercise of the founder’s power is unfair, and addressed by Reich in the book. He states that most permanent things wield power only as long as the living choose to humor them – eg a dead author only matters if living people choose to read them and take their advice to heart – but foundations do not need the support of the living as long as the contracts that create them remain enforced).
There is much to like about Just Giving. Its breakdown of where charitable dollars actually go (mostly to religious institutions if you’re poor, mostly to colleges and museums if you’re rich) contains data I’ve been looking for a long time, and rightly points out that we should do better. Its discussion of the way tax deductions interact with wealth is interesting, although not obviously more applicable to charity than to book-writing or anything else. Its conclusion – that charity and philanthropic foundations have an important role in diversifying the range of represented interests and experimenting with new social policy – seems dead right, and matches my own thoughts on the subject (and see also this article by Kelsey Piper). I really can’t disagree with this book too much on the object level.
And yet if my review sounds scathing, I hope this is a sort of justice. Rob Reich has limited disagreements with charity on the object level, but still manages to write what sounds like a scathing review of it. I think this is bad.
In conclusion, Just Giving is a government-subsidized exercise of plutocratic power and plutocratic voice repugnant to the very idea of a democratic society of equals. I hope this gets corrected in any future editions.
[EDIT: Professor Reich responds in the comments. Please be polite if you try to discuss this with him. Also, please stop mistaking him for former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, they are two different people.]