Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Clowns on the Left, Jokers on the Right

While Leftists in Washington are busy assaulting our property rights through "cap and trade", health care "reform" and massive spending, "rightists" in another Washington--Washington University (WU) in St. Louis are busy assaulting intellectual property rights. Last week the Christian Science Monitor carried an opinion piece in which the authors--WU professors David K. Levine and Michele Boldrin--called for the abolition of the patent system:
Ideas kept under lock and key are much less useful than those that are freely available. So we find Africans dying of AIDS because they cannot afford to pay monopoly prices to patent holders of certain drugs. Or, at a more mundane level, we cannot legally watch movies on our new Android phones because "rights holders" do not wish us to.
Levine and Boldrin do not like the fact that they can't do what they want without restriction. They don't like the idea that AIDS drugs or movies are not freely available, like manna from heaven. They don't like the fact that those who created these values--the "rights holders"--properly want control over their creation and want to be paid for their creations. The authors regard this as "monopolistic".

Such attacks are common among Libertarians, those alleged defenders of liberty who believe that any restrictions on their unbridled whims constitutes an attack on their freedom. I won't address their full argument against intellectual property rights--Greg Perkins has done an excellent job of this at NoodleFood--but I will address one specific point made in the article:
It is common to argue that intellectual property (IP) in the form of copyrights and patents is crucial for the creation of innovative ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, software, books, and music. Proponents argue that IP is just like ordinary property in houses and cars. In fact, empirical evidence shows that IP does not promote innovation and that, unlike ordinary property, it is detrimental to the social good.
To Levine and Boldrin, the standard to be used is the "social good". Rights are not a requirement of man's nature, but a social convention that can be granted or withdrawn according to the "social good". When the alleged "social good" demands, the individual must sacrifice his creations and his judgment to others. The individual has no right to live for himself; he has no right to think and work for his own benefit. His work and his life may be disposed of by society. Having declared morality (and philosophy in general) irrelevant to politics, this is the inevitable result of Libertarianism.

While allegedly embracing free markets, Libertarians reject free minds. But free markets cannot exist without free minds--indeed, free markets are the social consequence of free minds. Free markets are the social implementation of an individual's right to act according to his own rational judgment--the right to trade the products of his mind without interference from others.

Without an explicit moral foundation, Libertarians can only embrace the dominant morality in the culture--altruism. They can only accept the premise that the standard of morality is service to others, that the "social good" supersedes the individual, that the individual must place the welfare and interests of others--including "society"--before his own. They can only accept the premise that the need for AIDS drugs or the desire to watch a movie is a claim on those who have created these values.

Absent a rational moral foundation based on man's nature, rights are disposable when they do not serve some "practical" good. And the "practical" is determined by the morality that is accepted. According to altruism, it is not practical to withhold AIDS drugs from those who need them; it is not practical to withhold movies from those who desire to view them; it is not practical to withhold one's ideas or creations from others because they have needs and desires that you have a moral duty to fulfill.

According to altruism, those who do not "voluntarily" sacrifice for others may properly be forced to do so. Those who selfishly withhold their creations from others may properly have those creations seized. This is where altruism--and Libertarianism--must lead.


Steve D said...

“empirical evidence shows that IP does not promote innovation and that, unlike ordinary property, it is detrimental to the social good.”

I’ve heard this a lot but I have never actually seen the evidence. What is the empirical evidence? Have you seen anything which might justify why he made this comment?

“short answer is that intellectual property does not increase innovation and creation.”

They never show the data though. I see a hypotheses and a couple of examples which seem to support their hypothesis but without enough details to be sure. I don’t know. What if we compare countries with different IP systems – it’s still not a controlled experiment but it would be one step closer.

I get pretty tired of people saying they have evidence and then give general statements rather than cough up the evidence.

I agree with your moral argument but this subject goes right to the roots of what force and what property actually is at a metaphysical level. I have not yet had the chance to get through the inductive argument step by step but a lot of circumstantial evidence points to the fact that you are correct.

Brian Phillips said...

Steve-- The "evidence" is the fact that AIDS drugs are not freely available and we have to pay for the movies we want to watch. Since these values actually exist, but the owners don't hand them out for free, this "proves" that IP does not promote the "social good".

In other words, they have some unmet desire and demand that others fulfill it. The refusal to do so is allegedly an act of force, and thereby a violation of their rights. (I have seen this argument elsewhere.) This is nothing more than whim worship.