The Toast brings us its latest pop-culture parody: Ayn Rand’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here’s a key passage:
GILES: In every generation there is a Slayer. She is the Chosen One. She alone will stand against the forces of darkness –
BUFFY: What does it pay?
GILES: What do you mean?
BUFFY: I’m being expected to risk my personal health and well-being on behalf of those too weak to fend for themselves, yes?
GILES: I wouldn’t put it exactly like that.
BUFFY: Surely this kind of specialized labor merits compensation, if my skills are so highly valued on the free market.
GILES: Well, we can’t really offer the Slayer money, if that’s what you mean.
BUFFY: Then I will find someone who can, and work only for the highest bidder.
Okay, Buffy doesn’t exactly sound heroic here… but she’s got a point! After all, we don’t expect policemen and soldiers to work without pay. Sure, most firefighters are still volunteers, but the number is declining, and even the volunteers are often given some form of compensation such as health insurance, workers’ comp, stipends, and per-call or per-shift fees.
When you think about it, it’s pretty strange to expect an important, even vital, service to be performed out of pure altruism. As Adam Smith observed, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That is how we induce people to work in almost all professions. Why should vampire slayers be any different?
If you’re a devoted Buffy fan, you know the lack of compensation eventually becomes a real problem. After Buffy’s mother dies and Buffy becomes the sole provider for both herself and her sister Dawn, her financial situation becomes dire. In “Flooded,” Anya (a near-anagram for Ayn) suggests that Buffy should start charging for slaying vampires: “I mean, you’re providing a valuable service to the whole community. I say cash in!” Dawn objects, “You can’t charge innocent people for saving their lives.” Dawn is clearly wrong, of course; see above re: soldiers and cops. Eventually, Buffy ends up working at the Doublemeat Palace — time that would surely have been better spent defending humanity from creatures of the night.
Arguably, vampire-slaying is a public good – that is, a service that you cannot exclude non-payers from benefitting from.* Every time Buffy slays a vampire, she saves any number of anonymous future victims, none of whom can be identified and made to pay. Economists will often argue that government should fund public goods because they’re difficult for the private sector to provide. Even Ayn Rand would have agreed to that; she supported government services to protect individual rights of person and property, and surely protection from vampire attacks would qualify.
However, in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and arguably the real world as well — the government is not exactly a reliable ally. (See Ilya Somin’s chapter in Economics of the Undead for more about why governments fail to anticipate the undead threat.) So perhaps it would be better for some private organization — the seemingly well-funded Watchers’ Council being the obvious choice — to pay slayers for their services.
But regardless of whether you think the public or private sector should fund vampire slayage, it still makes sense to compensate the brave people who are on the front line and taking the biggest risks on behalf of everyone else.**
* True public goods have a second condition, non-rivalry in consumption, which I’m ignoring because it’s not especially relevant here.
** By the way, if you’ve seen any of the sex scenes between Buffy and Spike in Season 6, then you already know what Ayn Rand’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer would look like.