To Freelance or Not

By Graham Peterson

Go look up “freelance” in the OED. The etymology is (surprise!) militaristic. Literally, he who freelanced was a lance-for-hire, a mercenary. What is connoted here then in a modern context? An employee of a modern company (note the militaristic origin of that phrase: company) demonstrates her loyalty to The Group — whereas a freelancer is merely a hired gun.

Interestingly, where do we see the phrase freelancer most often? The arts. Freelance graphic designer. Freelance journalist. The arts were once almost solely sponsored by and disseminated for the religious and political aristocracy’s purposes.  So, in markets which the Clerisy has traditionally held on to, aristocratic language is common (art gallery owners apparently refer to their collection of artists as their “stable” — blessed is ye who keeps thine agrarian estate in order).

Modern evolution of this rhetoric brings us to the case of new Independent Industries. Independent films. Independent music. They’re not “independent” — they’re just small businesses. The only way these markets differ materially from other businesses, and from traditional film and music firms, is that they leverage cheapened technology to self-publish and cut-out intermediaries which were able to extract rents in the early and mid 20th century.  But the rhetoric of rebellion is important, hugely, when it comes to promoting deviance and entrepreneurship in a society which hopes to benefit from market innovation and economic growth.

We see all the way down the history here, how important it is for agents to redefine the rhetoric of arts-industries in order to redefine the appropriateness and value of making arts — not for the consumption of elites — by the people for the people. This is a good thing.

But the amount of leftover militaristic language which agents still use to convey their ethical frames to one another in the market place is not.  Consumers and business people both still talk about “getting a steal, making a killing, cornering the market.”  Without a new vocabulary which reflects that Trade is not War, as people’s ye olde zero-sum intuitions tell them, tastes for markets will continue to remain precarious, and hence economic growth and increasing welfare too.

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