I now want to begin the slow and steady work of teasing out the implications of this tripartite model of making a living. Here is that schema again:
I. Use what you’ve got.
The ‘getting’ part refers to acquiring something or other. The ‘using’ part may have as its referent land, waste, plants, animals, tools, people, etc.
Examples of using what you’ve got: Hunting and gathering, forcing people into slavery, foraging, subsistence farming, fishing, Skyping, drinking from a well on own’s land, permaculture, mining, drilling for oil, etc.
II. Exchange what’s in hand.
By ‘in hand,’ I mean what is available to me. It could be my skills or ideas; it could be my money or property; it could be stock; it could be my labor; etc.
Examples: buying and selling, providing a service, brokering a deal, creating a patentable product, wage laboring, contracting, bartering/swapping, renting, etc.
III. Offer what you can.
Examples: sharing, giving, borrowing/lending (without interest), requesting, doing a favor, helping (another in need).
NB. I believe this list of examples is complete.
One clear implication of categories I, II, and III is that each has its own chief virtue. The virtue of ‘using what you’ve got’ is measure: using just enough water, neither too much (overuse) nor too little (waste). The virtue of ‘exchanging what’s in hand’ is fairness: fairness in respect of procedures (say, in the case of contract negotiations) and in respect of equivalences (say, in the case of exchanging this much money for that many vegetables). The virtue of ‘offering what you can’ is generosity: e.g., sharing what one has is one way of being generous.
Now I want to see how this categorial schema can help explain why, in a number of everyday cases, something doesn’t work. My sights are set on what I’ll call categorical confusions.
Why the PayPal Donate Now button on personal websites can’t possibly work. In the past, donations have fallen into Category III. Some non-profit organization or some cause is in need, and donations are not gifts (I don’t believe) but rather instances of help. However, in the case of personal websites where one finds these Donate Now buttons, the reader is confused: isn’t this person a writer who gets paid to write (Category II) and not a non-profit or some special cause (Category III)? Therefore, one is not sure what the donation is (an exchange?) or what it is for–what cause, for what organization which seeks to do what sort of thing? The button looks, in the end, a lot like begging.
Why Kickstarter rarely works. Chiefly because it treats friends (Category III) as if they were involved in exchanges (Category II). Also and more generally because it confuses one’s friends and acquaintances with those with whom one can make commercial transactions. But friends don’t like to fork over or cough up money in exchange for things as if they were strangers (again, Category II); they like to help, offer gifts, meet requests, etc. (Category III). This is why Kickstarter only tends to work when someone is already an established professional musician, say, with a loyal fan following. That is, he already has customers who have already paid for shows, bought albums, etc., in the past.
Why using social media is not a good way to make a living. A similar analysis. Friends and pseudo-friends are not those with whom one can make exchanges. Popularity (Category III) does not translate into transactions: be these sales of records, sold-out events, etc. (Category II). Liking you and buying something from you are two separate things.
NB. Now one can be a friend of someone and also do business with him. But one is a friend in certain contexts and a business partner in others.
Why the caring profession is poorly paid. Again, the reason is that a set of actions (Category III) once associated with friendship, neighborliness, and family–helping, sharing, chipping in, fulfilling requests, etc.–is in the midst of being transformed into a set of services (Category II). Yet the conceptual transition has yet to be fully made with the result that there is not a fully worked-out commercial vocabulary in which to speak about these once quite intimate social matters. In some sense, that may be to the good since it still rubs us the wrong way to think of changing all these forms of intimate help into services. In another sense, though, it leaves those in the caring profession in a position of being exploited: working a lot and making a poor living.
Why all these new companies are not a part of the sharing economy. Owning a home is an example of Category I. Renting out your home is an example of Category II. Sharing your home with a friend, who is a guest, is an example of Category III. As I have already argued, using one’s home as a bed and breakfast involves moving, permissibly, from Category I to Category II. Quite obviously, it has nothing to do with Category III; hence, it is not an example of sharing.
(I express my doubts about the fake ‘sharing economy’ in this post.)