Who are “the people”?

by Andreas Baumann

In Denmark, the debate is currently raging over whether to reintroduce fixed book prices for the first twelve months on the market; this would allow book sellers and the traditional publishing houses better conditions. On the other hand, it shrinks the availability of cheap crime novels and cookbooks available in supermarket stores – very possibly to the dismay of the ordinary consumer.

This led the Consumers’ Council (Forbrugerrådet) to argue against the regulation of the book market from a consumer’s point of view (nb: link is in Danish). It’s rather rare to see the Consumers’ Council argue against regulation, so that alone makes the topic interesting.

There is some evidence pointing to the Council being justified in it’s arguments; market constraints tend to lead to less adaptability between the demand and supply sides of the market. In that sense, regulation can harm consumers, because it reduces the necessity of publishers to adjust production to the market demand.

However, what is misguided in this consideration is the fact that it only considers current consumers. One thing that is remarkable about books in contrast to almost any other product is that they tend to last forever – not the physical copies, but the content. Right besides my computer I have the collected works of Shakespeare, who died almost 400 years ago – and yet his work lives on.

Considerations involving future generations are not uncommon in politics; for example, they’re very common in considering environmental impact. When we perform cost-benefit analyses of long-run impacts, we typically introduce an intertemporal discount rate – how much weight should we place on events in the future versus effects now? This has a lot of reasons, one of the main reasons being uncertainty, that is, we weigh events taking place in a thousand years less than those that would take place tomorrow, ceteris paribus, because our uncertainty is necessarily greater for the more distant events ^1.

In the above case, the book market was analysed under complete discounting; that is, that no future benefits could be considered. However, I believe that this is wrong. Books are culture, that is, there should a concern for the eternal, not the temporal, when regulating the market.

This also explains why the Danish Conservatives are for this regulation: a central idea in conservative ideology is the idea of the generational contract. This is the idea that since we received this society from our parents, we too have a duty to surrender to our children in good condition. This is a common argument behind conservative conservationism.

I’d argue that this idea can be extended to the cultural domain: we need to support books that aren’t necessarily profitable, but might have lasting cultural impacts. And actually, I’d argue that the fixed book prices are a good way to do this: based on historical evidence, they should increase the willingness to take risks by publishers, without political “winner-picking” in the production of cultural goods.

^1) One of the main criticisms against Bjørn Lomborg was that he set the intertemporal discount rate much higher than others working within environmental economics.