Toning it Down: Guitar Amps are not like Markets
“Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!” –Walter Sobchak
I’m having difficulty with Jason Brennan’s attempt to make guitar amps analogous with markets. This is what happens when academics step outside of their expertise. They sound ignorant and alarmingly hypocritical:
We think markets are a bit like guitar amplifiers. Guitar amps have various knobs that can be put on different settings, and, as a result, make the amplifier sound good or bad. Similarly, markets might have a range of variables that can be put to different settings. Changing the settings might change the market from good or bad, or bad too good. Just as some guitar amps sound good only on very specific settings, some markets might be good only on very specific settings. Or, just as other guitar amps sound good no matter what the settings, so other markets might be good not matter what the settings.
What sort of classical liberal philosopher wants to give anybody the power to tinker with the alleged settings of a market? Brennan sounds exactly like the central planning technocratic he’s apt to critique. Or the “man of system” Adam Smith cautioned against in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Or the imaginings and machinations of economists F.A. Hayek warned about in The Fatal Conceit.
The quality of sonic output from an amplified instrument primarily comes from the player and the instrument itself. Not to mention one person typically uses one or more amps at a time, but not the other way around. As opposed to markets, which are organic makeups of millions of people scattered about and simultaneously acting on their own rational self interests based on the incomplete knowledge they possess at any given time in order to exchange goods and services.
In my experience as a musician, there’s never been an asymmetric situation involving an amplifier. It’s just a bullhorn for an instrument that can’t be played or heard well acoustically. Consider that there are only twelve notes on the sonic spectrum. So a D chord is a D chord, regardless of it’s timbre, who’s playing it, or which amplifier you happen to be using. All possible combinations of notes and chords are already known. There is no knowledge gap. An amplifier is not communicating information that would otherwise be unknown to certain people at certain times. The player controlling his/her instrument predetermines all of the inputs and outputs, which is far from being analogous to a market.
The advantage of a sensitive and true legendary tube amp like a Hiwatt is that it’s much more right hand responsive, meaning you can control the tone just by your attack. Start with bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, and just look at how eclectic this list of artists gets (which doesn’t even account for artists who use Hiwatts on recordings but aren’t endorsed).
Take producer John Shanks, for example. He has fifteen Hiwatts in his studio. They’re all over hits he’s produced for artists like Van Halen, Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson, and Goo Goo Dolls. That’s a pretty broad range of styles and sounds. Point being: “dialing in” an amp is an afterthought and largely a marketing ploy.
However, the ability to control or adjust tonality is for equalization purposes and typically more about which frequencies to roll off than on. Again, this does nothing to fundamentally alter what’s being played or heard. The inputs and outputs are both fixed and finite because the amp needs an external controller. Turning those knobs up to 11 won’t change the fact that a D chord is still a D chord. The notes are the notes. The chords are the chords. The analogy is false. So don’t touch that dial.