In the following post, Arthur Goldhammer, who runs the blog French Politics, brilliantly reminds us of the immense social process that made it possible for Steve Jobs to do what he did. What we especially like about the post is the connection it draws between two competing visions of the economy and the political implications that follow. The dominant view of Jobs’ celebrants is not far off from a crude, Randian view that the economy is populated by a few heroic geniuses like Jobs, for whose existence we should all be thankful, and who create value individually, in isolation, and ex nihilo. All that is required is a free market and the profit motive. The reality, as Goldhammer points out, is considerably different. For Jobs to invent what he did required the genius and labor of huge numbers of people, large amounts of publicly-financed research, and people sharing in the intrinsic rewards of joint collaboration and invention. Genius arises out of and in relation to what social cooperation makes possible, not against society.
By Arthur Goldhammer
In one of many recent articles on the late Steve Jobs, Dean Baker wrote (comparing Jobs and Alan Greenspan): “One made us rich, with a vast array of new products and new possibilities. The other made us poor with a long lasting downturn that could persist for more than a decade.” I want to enter a mild demurrer against the hagiographic depiction of Steve Jobs as the heroic entrepreneur, which one finds in nearly all the obituaries. My quarrel is not with Apple’s overseas labor practices, deplorable as those may have been. That is a separate issue. It is with the whole idea of the heroic individual entrepreneur who supposedly creates an industry ex nihilo and “makes us rich.”
To say this is to take nothing away from Steve Jobs, who was brilliant at what he did. But what he did was essentially to package the genius of tens of thousands of others, who worked not for extraordinary shares of immense profits or for rock-star celebrity but for love of the work itself. When the technologies are in place, it is inevitable that a Jobs will come along and find the key to commoditizing them, but creation of the technologies is a long, slow, and above all social process, which owes more to the actions of a far-sighted state and to basic research pursued in universities and private labs than to the genius of any entrepreneur.
Think of all the technologies that go into a Mac or iPhone: semiconductor physics, computer languages, ingenious algorithms, liquid-crystal displays, networking protocols, advanced modulation techniques, etc. etc. Steve Jobs was responsible for none of this, and the vast scope of the collective effort that goes into making each handy consumer device is a story that needs to be told by a historian of technology, not a hagiographer. Otherwise we risk confusing the achievement of the individual, remarkable as it may be, with the social achievement–the civilization–that makes it possible.
The singling out of the individual achievement is to my mind an essentially right-wing trope. It encourages the kind of thinking that leads people to argue that the tax system must preserve the profit incentive that is supposed to motivate these”job creators” and ”wealth creators.” But the fact is that emphasizing the economic incentives to individuals ignores the importance of providing other kinds of incentives to the kinds of people who are not motivated primarily by money (and I think that Jobs himself surely was one of those for whom money was a secondary consideration). No matter how much we enjoy our iPods and iPhones, we should be careful about attributing their existence to individual “genius” rather than to collective effort and the education and organization on which that effort depends.