Having your cake: Fansubs, entitlement and the American Puritan Capitalist ethic – an analysis

(Note: A large part of this is me thinking through this problem and coming to a conclusion. Now, I hope it doesn’t sound pedantic, but it probably will. Also I’ll probably use America when I mean United States. That’s just because I like America better, no disrespect to the Canadians or the Mexicans or the South Americans out there. I just tend to think of my country as America, whether that’s right or not. And on a final note, I’m interested in what other people think of this premise. So if you make it to the end, please comment. Thanks. – Cameron)

America is a weird country.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like my country. And it’s not that I’m just used to it. I actually like the politics, history and cultural challenges of America. In fact, where else would we have to write out the fundamental rights on a piece of paper, so that future generations can argue about what they really mean? Where else is entitlement a bad word? And where is the basic assumption that people are not entitled to something unless they can prove that they are?

In fact, the question of entitlements has become something of a national pastime in political circles. Who deserves them? Who doesn’t deserve them? Are we being fair to everyone? And my personal favorite, “Why should anyone get something for nothing?”

If I had to trace this back through history, I’d put the foundation of these arguments in the hands of two separate, yet equally important, philosophies – Capitalism and Puritanism.

No such thing as a free lunch

Now I’ll admit that I haven’t read “The Wealth of Nations”, but from what I’ve seen of American Capitalism can be summed up with one name – Horatio Alger. Essentially he wrote a set of stories in the early part of the 19th century with young heroes who through pluck and hard work managed to claw their way up into success. The idea being that in a free capitalistic market anyone can go from busboy to bourgeois. The responsibility for that fell solely on the individual, not on society.

The thing is even in those Horatio Alger novels there was a strongly Puritanical undertone. Basically the Puritans were largely the founders of the American work ethic. They went to work at sun up, went to bed at sundown, read the Bible and rested on Sunday. Among their other contributions to the country¹, they contributed the idea, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground” What makes them so important to the American work ethos is that they added a moral contingent to it. If you’re working, then you’re a good person. If you’re not working, you’re a bad person.²

While capitalism said, “it’s up to the individual to succeed”, Puritanical thought said, “The individual has a moral obligation to contribute for the benefit of the society.” In Capitalism, this means that people have a moral obligation to produce. But they also need a reason to produce, so they also have a moral obligation to consume for the benefit of society.

Even though there is this commandment on the workers to produce and consume, there was no reverse of that in American society. In fact one look at laissez-faire politics during the height of the Industrial Revolution would show quite the opposite. There was in fact only a moral obligation for companies to produce and produce and produce some more.

Now what’s important to note about this trend is that responsibility for judging a product was largely left up to the consumer. They had to rely on word of mouth, perhaps a review and advertising (once the mass media came into being) to tell whether a product was good. And if they bought a bad product, it was not the company’s fault for producing a bad product, but the persons fault for not doing their research. ³ But what is important to note here is that the imperative is to “buy” the product.

The rise of Populism and the roots of the entitlement argument

What always strikes me about pundits talking about the illegal downloading of intellectual property, is that they act like there is this rising scourge of people who feel entitled to something for nothing. But honestly if I had to trace this “problem” back to roots, I’d start with the rise of Populism at the end of the 19th century. Primarily, I’d point out the labor unions who stated that people were entitled to basic safety in the workplace and an eight-hour workday.

This is often met with violent repercussions on the part of the people in power. But the idea had taken seed in the American consciousness (4). By the time Woodrow Wilson took office, the change in American society was well on its way. Essentially the labor unions had sort of won an uneasy truce with the people on the top of the food chain.

But the American Puritan-Capitalist ethos didn’t die. Instead it stayed, perhaps in a less virulent form, but it would pop its head out any time the government tried to step in to help people. Then in the 60s and 70s people said they had a right to other stuff, such as clean air and water. This is actually a fairly important turning point in the entitlement issue. Not only are corporations responsible for the welfare of their workers, but also the welfare of their communities. Also, and perhaps most important, companies became responsible for the safety of their customers.

Now arguably consumer safety may actually stretch back further than this, but I would argue that seatbelt legislation is really one of the most important turning points in the entitlement issue. Because it took the responsibility out of the consumer’s hands and put it in the corporation’s hands. Even more than worker’s safety and community safety, it was no longer purely up to the customer to judge a quality product. It was up to the companies to produce a quality product whether they wanted to or not.

The nature of the market and the Internet

Now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with fansubs. I promise that I’m getting there. Now up until recently the basic idea of the supply chain hasn’t really changed. The idea is that the companies produce the products, some middlemen get them into stores and people buy the products. It’s really simple and it still left people with little choice in the matter. Even though less responsibility was in the consumers’ hands the moral imperative to buy remained (and still does.)

But the Internet changed everything, really.

Now, I don’t know how many people reading this were really cognizant of the late 90s and the hype surrounding the Internet. Now being the contrarian that I am, I didn’t really believe that the Internet would do all that much to change the way we live. Boy was I wrong. Perhaps I should have seen the handwriting on the wall when I was able to find the collected works of Shakespeare online in 1996. But I didn’t really expect Napster.

Perhaps I should have though. Intellectual property is fluid. It’s easily converted into data and sent from computer to computer. In fact, that’s the reason why the Internet came into being to begin with. In retrospect, it’s not really that surprising that it ended up being used that way. However, this has wreaked havoc on the supply chain. Now companies which used to have a monopoly on the supply should have scrambled to change their thinking.

But almost 200 years of Puritan-Capitalist ethos is a hard thing to break. So instead of listening to customer’s demands, they bullied, pleaded and threatened the people downloading the materials. And they shut Napster down. But once the box was opened, they couldn’t quite shut it again.

What I don’t think they counted on was that 100 years of entitlement has bred a new type of consumer. One that doesn’t ask, “What can I do for the company?” But one that asks, “What can the company do for me?” While that may be part of the Capitalist ideal of the Free Market, it’s never become as apparent as it is now. In fact, I’d go as far as to say all control over the market has been stripped out of the hands of the companies and put in the hands of the consumers.

What any of this has to do with anime

Well now that question has moved to the Anime Industry and the same debate has opened up among forums and blogs and podcasts everywhere. And in the end, I’m torn on which side I fall down on. To be fair, I feel bad for the creators. They are producing a product with every intention of selling it to a waiting audience. Essentially they’re the only real victims in this cultural struggle between the Puritan-Capitalist ethos and entitlement.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people are entitled to watch anime. At least not on the same level as they’re entitled to clean air or safe working conditions. I’ve argued before that most of the anti-industry arguments make my head hurt. Although the more I think about it, the more I find the, “But it’s free in Japan” is not necessarily a bad argument, but an argument wrongly phrased. It isn’t free in Japan, but people can view the series without having to pay anything more than we would to watch say House on television. Essentially, it isn’t actually free, but it is perceptually free.

And consumers feel entitled to the same treatment. The consumer culture in America has become one where we no longer have to suffer at the whims of the companies who produce the products. Essentially with the advent of Napster, stealing has become a consumer choice. And like Napster, there is no legal alternative to the service that fansubs provide, which is an actually free preview of the series.

And to be honest, I feel consumers are entitled to that. Because entertainment is such a personal thing, there isn’t an empirical way to decide whether you like a series. So why should someone have to spend $60 to $210 US to find out whether they agree with a reviewer? Why should someone have to guess they like a series off a handful of episodes?

Because it’s the right thing to do? Phooey. That’s what I have to say about that. (5)

It’s time for the companies to move past the Puritan-Capitalist ethos (ironically more in Japan than in America) and realize that they don’t make the rules any more. The consumers do. And while I feel bad for the creators, every step away from them, I feel less bad. In a world where stealing has become a consumer choice, companies can choose to react or the can choose to stand still.

If they react, they have to realize that the customers are no longer going to come to them. Instead they have to go to the customers. They can’t expect the customers to meet them halfway or quarter-way or even sort of step out of their box. (6)

If they choose to rattle their saber and storm around crying, “It’s not fair! It’s not right!” Well then they deserve what they get.

One Final Note

Ironically, I feel a bit hypocritical making this argument at all. I have spent thousands of dollars buying anime sight unseen. Yet, somehow I can’t justify the argument, “Well I did it, so should you.”

Footnotes

1 Mandatory public education and the town hall meeting being the most notable.

2 If you don’t believe me on this point, take a look at the discussion surrounding welfare reform in the early 90s. Behind the racial undertones and classism, the rhetoric basically sounded like it was pulled out of a Puritanical commune.

3 If this sounds an awful lot like the argument that someone should read reviews and do their research before buying a show, it should.

4 This is in part the work of the muckrakers too. And can even be seen in Andrew Carnegie’s fairly hypocritical idea of “Corporate Citizenship”. Although I will give him credit for actually setting up a foundation that does do a lot of good work.

5 I do need to point out that I agree with buying a product that the consumer thinks is worth buying. In fact, for the idea of entitlement to have any weight at all, I would say it’s necessary.

6 There has been some positive movement on the part of GONZO when it comes to putting videos up on YouTube and (from the sound of it) on Crunchyroll. I don’t know if it goes far enough, but at least it’s something.

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6 Comments

  1. There’s always the other route: Hiring mercs to kill innocent people.

    I mean, if you want to treat IP like real property, you have got to invest in security. we don’t want some rascally 14-year-old to make off with our imaginary property1

  2. @drmchsr0 – That’s true 🙂

    Although making the ISPs responsible for copyright violations seems like a scary middle step to that.

  3. Reminds me of an article I read a while back calling us The Entitlement Generation: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1431497/posts

  4. The move by GONZO was something. At least, yes, they are trying to get closer to us. I would rather JC Staff, though. GONZO’s riding on a streak of bad series.

    Dragonaut.

  5. @ Michael – To be honest, I’m liking Tower of Druaga after the first episode. But I do think it’s kind of sad that the company with the worst reputation is the one making this move.

  6. […] writes well. He writes unique stuff. The problem is, not many people are interested in thoughts regarding populism, or capitalism as background in the analysis of anime. I will also posit myself as an example. It is up to the reader to judge if I write well, but I […]


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