What really happened to the Playboy Bunny?

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Playboy’s announcement (“Playboy is Doing What?!?,” Playboy.com, October 13) that it will be ending the nude magazine pictorials that have been its foundation for six decades might seem the result of the instability of free markets.  The Foundation for Economic Education’s Sarah Skwire (“The Creative Destruction of Nudity in Playboy Magazine,” The Freeman, October 14) calls the shift “a perfect example of [Joseph] Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction” prompted by “the relentless drive of the market, the need to satisfy new customers with different preferences and constraints, the constant push for new technology, and the desire for competitors to stand out in the marketplace.”

With competition from Penthouse to the Internet, Playboy has definitely never been a Ma Bell-style monopoly. And the repudiation of nudity embodies the same entrepreneurial adaptation to consumer demand that providing it was in the first place. But is that the whole story?

Is the relentless churn of the actually-existing economy a necessary byproduct of market dynamism? Are dwindling production values the inevitable side effect of increased variety of consumer options? In fact, much of the “destruction” is indeed destructive, with governments channeling markets in wasteful directions.

The 21st-century ascendance of Maxim magazine’s titillating-but-clothed approach is intertwined with the growth of the War on Terror-era military; The New York Times noted in 2012 that Playboy was among the magazines whose nudity keeps it “not available in the Middle East, making Maxim one of the raciest publications sold in combat zones.” And government subsidies to transportation and communication tip the balance to companies operating on artificially large scales in civilian domains as well; Playboy is in part making its overall brand palatable to more restrictive overseas markets.

This extends all the way to the workplaces which Playboy.com is now safe for. In 1928, George Bernard Shaw argued that industrial productivity depended on the rigid coordination of labor: “The railway service would not be of much use if the engine driver and the guard were to stop the train to look at a football match when they felt inclined that way.” In fact, that was the first industry to require offloading its bills on the taxpayers to be profitable. Investor Paul Graham observes that the founders of many of the tech startups he funds “work odd hours” and “look at whatever they want online without worrying whether it’s ‘work safe’,” yet a “company at this stage is probably the most productive it’s ever going to be.” Without the state helping to domesticate labor, analogous opportunities would become available to all workers.

As Karl Hess once wrote in Playboy’s pages, the ideal of laissez-faire is not catering to isolated individuals, but that “every community should be one of voluntarism, to the extent that it lives for and through its own people and does not force others to pay its bills.” Cultural norms based on local consensus rather than ill-fitting broader compromise would proliferate from Amsterdams to Salt Lake Cities. And social wealth would be almost as abundant as digital pictures.

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