Patronage as a Mechanism for Socialism?

It has become quite clear to me in my research that most expressive works (art, literature, music, film, science, etc) always have been, and probably always will be, funded by patronage. The key question, which has been answered differently according to the historical evolution of culture, technology, and the extent of the market, is who should be that patron? Wealthy elites, as in the Duke of Tuscany sponsoring Galileo or Pope Julius II sponsoring Michelangelo? The government, as in the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Science Fund politically allocating grants? Publishers, as in the Big Six movie studios or the Big Five record labels who buy copyrights from artists to distribute their work? The crowd, as in Kickstarter and Indiegogo who collectively chip in small donations?
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I only recently realized that there is an obvious parallel here between the temporal structure of patronage and the temporal structure of wages in production. In patronage, the patron pays the artist’s fixed costs up front, the artist takes time to produce, and then the work is finally sold and distributed (depending on the type of patronage above, either by the artist or patron). In exchange for covering the artist’s expenses, the patron contracts for some portion of the gains, either in royalties, merchandising rights, prestige, rewards (on crowdfunding sites), etc, until the fixed costs have at least been recouped by the patron. During the time of actual production (days, months, years), the artist sustains him or herself on the advance furnished by their patron.
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This might seem somewhat trivial to economists, as obviously the patron-client relationship is a form of entrepreneur-laborer relationship and is just a firm by another name. But I find it interesting that a lot of the crude arguments for socialism emerge from misunderstanding this critical market relationship (of employer-employee). When I say socialism, I do not mean a superior, comparable economic system to replace capitalism (such as what emerged from the socialist calculation debate), but that emotionally-charged pseudo-economic lamentation of the ills of capitalism we are all viscerally familiar with. Our hearts may sympathize, yet those trained in economics know to trace out incentives and consequences and recoil from the fallacies of such undisciplined thinking.

Socialists, particularly of the Marxian variety, argue in this fashion that (1) workers are the ones who make all of the goods, and (2) do not even receive enough wages to buy back the product, hence (3) capitalists are exploiting them by appropriating “surplus value” generated beyond what laborers are paid.
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These claims, of course, misunderstand the time structure of production: {Econ 101 lecture} Laborers, just like other owners of the factors of production (landowners, and capitalists), demand to be paid wages before the product is ultimately sold in the market. Imagine a world where nobody is paid until products were finally finished and sold on the market, years later — nobody would work because nobody could pay the bills. Thus, laborers are paid wages regularly, landowners are paid rent regularly, and capitalists (anyone who lends money) are paid interest regularly for their time services. There is little risk that these factors will not receive their payment (assuming the business at least breaks even). All of these are treated as costs to the entrepreneur (which is functionally, if not personally, different from the capitalist) who manages the enterprise and bears all of the risk. After all of these costs are paid, if (and that’s a big if, as the overwhelming majority of businesses have costs exceeding revenues) there is any revenue left over, they are earned as profits for the entrepreneur. That is, the entrepreneur (aside from their own laboring wages) only earns a return if the product is successful and society values the product more than its inputs. As for buying back the product, laborers marginal productivity contributes only a fraction of the total market value, combined with the shares going to the marginal productivity of landowners, capitalists, and entrepreneurial stewardship. Further, the incomes of workers allow them to purchase other products, as one is required to produce something (at minimum, rent out one’s labor services) in order to exchange with others to acquire the goods they desire. {\Econ 101 lecture}.

It is also a common trope that artists do not like capitalism because it is exploitative. Blake gave us the bleak view of “those dark satanic mills,” Dickens caricatures greedy capitalists like Scrooge in stark contrast to the wretched underclass of industrial England, and Sinclair churned our stomachs at the “Jungle” of working at a meat processing plant.

In more modern times, we have everything from the modern hippy/hipster subculture to Rage Against the Machine to Picasso. If we were feeling charitable, we could extend the definition of “artist” to Chomsky, Derrida, and all those philosophers of the varying branches of postmodernism that deconstruct modern capitalist society from all angles. Perhaps everyone has different experiences, but to think of the average “artist,” the mind’s eye tends to conjure up some combination of a bohemian “misunderstood” young 20-something, weighing invectives against the corporate media, industrial exploitation, or environmental degradation by unregulated free markets running amok.
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Might the patronage relationship be a mechanism by which artists and other bohemians, who are popularly known to identify with the political left, discover or craft their ideologies and identities against capitalism/the system/the man? Artists are, from their perspective, actually the ones doing all the work and producing the final product (be it a painting, a novel, a song, their part in a film, etc), and yet serve their bosses (patrons, studio executives) who dictate the direction of their work, sitting high and mighty on a paycheck probably much larger than their own (for apparently doing nothing of value in view of the artists). Would not this relationship color how they view value, production, and markets?
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I am not saying that all artists are political leftists, or even if they were that it is wrong, or that all artists misunderstand how economies operate. I don’t know, or think, that artists historically hated their patrons, that Da Vinci hated the de Medici. It’s perhaps more plausible today where artists become managed by faceless megastudios with political leverage, who start to look more and more like “the man.” But this seems to me to be a plausible mechanism for how art and artists tend in the aggregate, to take leftist views on culture and economics.
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Is it plausible? Or am I being just as apophenic and myopic as I am claiming some artists are?

About Ryan Safner

I am Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University. I earned my Ph.D in economics at George Mason University. I research and write mostly about ideas and intellectual property, but also have interests in public goods, public choice, and economic development. See my professional website at
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