Progressive Egalitarians Should Be Anti-IP

The Obama Administration insists that “‘Piracy is flat, unadulterated theft,’ and it should be dealt with accordingly.” Nonsense, of course. Only scarce goods can be property and therefore only scarce goods can be stolen. Ideas or information patterns are nonscarce goods. If I take your bicycle, you don’t have it anymore. If I copy your idea, now we both have it. Copying, i.e., piracy, is not theft.

As the Left is wont to do in lieu of sound argument, US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently related what is meant to be a heartrending story:

Recently, I’ve had a chance to read letters from award winning writers and artists whose livelihoods have been destroyed by music piracy. One letter that stuck out for me was a guy who said the songwriting royalties he had depended on to ‘be a golden parachute to fund his retirement had turned out to be a lead balloon.’ This just isn’t right.

My first immediate thought was why isn’t it right? Shouldn’t a progressive egalitarian’s own values lead him to be against intellectual property?

“What,” the progressive egalitarian should say, “you do a little work maybe once in your life, work which would be impossible if not for the shared cultural traditions from which it is derived and re-mixed, and get lucky (unearned talent, fortuitously good timing, etc.)…and you think you shouldn’t have to work for society again!?! That’s hardly fair, now is it? To paraphrase Proudhon, intellectual ‘property’ is theft!”

Lest the reader get the wrong impression, I am not as insensitive to the artist’s plight as this hypothetical progressive egalitarian. And I do not share his collectivist values. We come to similar conclusions via different reasons. I do not think that merely having an idea entitles one, legally-speaking, to be monetarily compensated by others or to have the power to prevent others from using their own property as they wish. Ideas are a dime-a-dozen. It is implementing them effectively, and in such a way as to earn a profit, that is hard. Accomplishing this is praiseworthy, but one should not rest on one’s laurels. Life, to say nothing of a flourishing life, requires productive work in order to be maintained and improved. Intellectual property is an attempt to use the coercive power of the state via granted monopoly-privilege to defy this reality as well as economic law and moral principle. The artist Secretary Locke mentioned could have saved (more) for his retirement and/or kept producing art instead of relying upon royalties to see him through his old age.


Cross-posted at Is-Ought GAP.

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  • Geoffrey,

    Well, while I think your characterization of progressives is a bit off-track (full egalitarianism seems more of a communist or socialist trait, rather than a “progressive” trait [progressives being anything just left of center to democratic-socialists), I do see the irony. At the very least, progressives should at least support reducing the time intellectual property laws monopolize certain new products.

    Interestingly, some progressives may be doing just that. One such example is Joseph Stiglitz, who in his book Making Globalization Work at first suggests reducing or eliminating patents on pharmaceutical products exported to the Third World. Stiglitz, of course, doesn’t take his logic to its fullest implications, but nevertheless concedes that current patent laws have made it very difficult for the Third World to acquire drugs which would otherwise have been inexpensive enough to afford (through third party manufacturers).

    Furthermore, he makes some broader claims (although, the context these following statements were written in were one of agreement with at least some patent laws; see my review of his book here). Stiglitz writes,

    “…[With] the enclosure of intellectual commons, there is a loss of efficiency… “Monopolization may not only result in static inefficiency but reduced innovation.”

    Nevertheless, you are right that intellectual property laws do run contrary to egalitarianism.

    • Stiglitz may have some qualms about patents but only because he doesn’t think it’s the optimal way for the state to tinker in the market–he seems to think that instead of the state granting a monopoly privilege to supplicants ahead of time to incentivize them, it should hand over taxpayer loot to a panel of state-appointed “experts” who are tasked with determining which innovators deserve a “prize”. I guess this is a more honest and open–maybe even more efficient–form of theft, trespass, and socialist redistribution than the patent system, but it doesn’t warm the cockles of my libertarian heart. Stiglitz is terrible.

      [Update: I see you mentioned this, and other unlibertarian proposals Stiglitz made, in your excellent review.]