“Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.” — Oscar WildeIn the wacky world of American politics, if you as an employer have a religious objection to paying for your employees’ contraceptives, it is you who is contemptuous of religious freedom.As the New York Times editorial board lectured a judge who thinks otherwise, “the […]
Socialism is the big lie of the 20th century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, socialism may […]
Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a worldwide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I […]
I opened a new bottle of probiotics this morning, and it had one of those circular seals on the top. You know, the one that reads, “Sealed for your protection.”And that seal got me thinking… how much protection do we need? How much security is enough?How much homogenization, pasteurization, disinfection, national security, etc…. do we […]
Last spring, Barack Obama told the graduating class of Ohio State University:“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems… They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because […]
In the Huffington Post last week, Glenn Greenwald, Slate contributor Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim had an investigative piece reporting that the NSA had been tracking the online porn-viewing habits of several Muslim leaders whom it viewed as radicals. A top-secret document shows that the agency was considering exposing these firebrands’ Internet dalliances as a […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
A few months ago at a demonstration against the president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a Canadian citizen made the following claim: “We don’t have guns, we are not Americans, we are civilized.” A few days before, in early July, a train of the company had run away and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing […]
From the Tongue-In-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that her committee will hold a “major review into all intelligence-collection programs.” This surprising declaration followed the revelation, through documents leaked by government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been listening to the […]
From the Tongue-in-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. – The complex negotiations aimed at bringing a long-term solution to the federal government’s expenditure and debt problem have produced an unconventional proposal. “Although the solution only focuses on a tiny fraction of government expenditures,” declared President Barack Obama, “it is a step in the right […]
I’ve just spent a harrowing weekend reflecting on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that came out in January 1776 and turned the public toward seeking independence from Britain. I say harrowing because the distance between the ideals found in this pamphlet and those of today’s America is so vast as to be nearly unrecognizable.The […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
Want to know just how invasive the state is going to get in the United States?Well, take a look across the pond.In terms of the large, invasive state, we English are way ahead of you guys. We’re a good 50 or more years further down the road to serfdom.Nineteenth-century Britain was about as glorious a […]
A tense drama unfolded this week with the virtual shutdown of vital government agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many other such federal agencies. Without them, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the republic.Even if fewer […]
Three months after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.’ mass surveillance program, “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to […]
A sixth-grader has been suspended for drawing an inappropriate picture. The drawing did not include any gun, but showed a checkpoint backed up by a SWAT team carrying flower pots while an unarmed drone hovered above.The suspended girl, whose name is kept secret at the request of her family, said she “just wanted to draw […]
The second part of this two-part article reveals an untold part of the story about how they were stopped last time. And shows how, if not again stopped, how it could lead to a fundamental loss of civil rights and freedom on the Internet.The offending legislation was barreling down the track, seemingly — even in […]
Two years ago, Hollywood, no kidding, masterminded a plot to, in effect, steal the Internet (by criminalizing certain conduct, booby trapping the Web in ways that few non-mega-corporations could cope with). There are signs, as perceptively flagged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the perps are back at it. We should care.This two-part article reveals […]
It has now been nearly two centuries since French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and compared American democracy to the French variety. The Martian asked his Earth correspondent to redo the comparison.The typical Frenchman thinks that Paris is the center of the universe, life without a baguette is not worth living, France is […]
I was at the Canadian border, headed toward the freedom that exists a few feet beyond the last security check. I was gently waved down a side corridor.Ninety minutes later, I was let go, but not before something truly alarming happened. I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government captured a mirrored version of my smartphone […]
Fort Meade, MD – The United States, the least unfree country on Earth, is fighting a major invasion of the Blueshirts.The most visible Blueshirts constitute a 50,000-plus army that occupies all the airports in America. Recognizable by their blue shirts and their inquisitive eyes and hands, they search and humiliate all Americans trying to leave […]
Sometimes, the news of the day causes me to say, “Huh?” The New York Times revelations last month about NSA programs and activities to enhance the agency’s ability to spy on ordinary citizens prompts today’s “Huh?” Who knew that our every phone call, Internet post and tweet is being recorded by the government?I have operated […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Oh, how the media love a good strike. Look at these fast-food workers and peasants standing up to the owners of capital! They aren’t going to take the oppression anymore. The suits in the boardrooms had better shape up and stop hoarding all that money. They need to give it up to the men and […]
Like all great historical ideas, the project of licensing journalists so that they may benefit from the First Amendment was born in a very modest place. In fact, it began in the most modest of all places: the brain of Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator from California.The new law, which was just adopted by Congress and […]
The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the […]
Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force […]
Some writings have turned the world upside down. They toppled tyrannies. They sparked revolutions and ennobled humanity. The Magna Carta. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence.”
Great scholarship can do the same.
In the 20th century, there was Ludwig von Mises’s “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.” This 1920 essay astonished the whole of Europe with the claim that socialism was impossible — not just inefficient but completely and fundamentally unworkable. No one ever refuted him but this essay was the subject of debate for decades.
In our time, there is an essay of similarly epic importance. It is “Against Intellectual Property” by Stephan Kinsella. It first appeared in 2000 in a low-circulation journal. But those who read it and seriously considered it never quite saw the world the same way again.
This week, this book-length essay is being released into the Laissez Faire Club, with a new introduction by the author and an editorial preface, along with additional commentary.
I was among those who came to be fundamentally changed by this piece.
Initially, I confess, I thought the whole essay was nuts. Maybe not completely wrong but just wrongheaded.
Why was Kinsella taking on the idea of intellectual property given that it is such a settled aspect of law? Isn’t holding a patent or a copyright kind of like holding other forms of property? Maybe the state as such shouldn’t be enforcing it but doesn’t it exist as a natural and normal part of the human community?
It had been decades since anyone really wrote in depth on this topic. There was Fritz Machlup in the 1940s and Murray Rothbard in the 1960s. Neither took on the entire apparatus of intellectual property (IP) as such but only criticized specific applications and supposed benefits that had been frequently cited on behalf of patent, copyright, and trademark. Hayek also had some passing comments that suggested opposition to all IP but the passages lacked passion and conviction.
But whatever: did the whole thing really matter that much? The year 2000 was really before the crisis became clear. There were some controversies growing about file sharing at the time but who could have predicted that government would later use the excuse of intellectual property as a way to smashing the whole of the digital world?
Here we are twelve years later. The government is using its jurisdiction over “intellectual property” to shut down websites, strangle new technologies in their infancy, jail teens, censor books and music, rob consumers, reward monopolists, increase prices of pharmaceuticals and agricultural products, shackle enterprise, and enhance the police power over our right to speak and act.
In fact, IP is the great excuse for the most dangerous form of 21st century tyranny over our lives. And can you believe that it is all done in the name of enforcing property rights? There are echoes of an older confusion that invoke property rights to justify chattel slavery.
This is catastrophic. How did we find ourselves in this mess? Kinsella, as a practicing patent attorney, knew exactly how. He saw the fundamental error not only of the implementation of IP but even the whole notion.
His astonishing conclusion: there is no such thing as IP in a free market. IP law is incompatible with freedom itself. It must be completely abolished in the name of freedom, prosperity, and human rights.
I won’t attempt to present his entire argument here. He started at the very beginning. Why are there property rights to begin with? They exist to resolve conflicts over scarce resources. If there were no such conflicts — if I could take a cookie from a jar and thereby cause a new cookie to instantly reappear — we would not have any use for property rights at all.
The important question, therefore, presents itself: what is scarce and what is not? Ideas are not scarce. They can be copied and copied unto infinity. There is no need for property in ideas at all. What about the value of an idea? No one owns value as such; that is determined by acting human mind. What about stealing ideas? You can’t steal what is infinitely copyable.
Note carefully: It is not possible to enforce “intellectual property” without coercing third parties that had nothing to do with economic exchange. In other words, IP is always aggression. If one idea is codified and protected by the state, the rest of humanity is thereby shackled.
If you copyright a song, even if I never heard it before, I’m forcibly prevented from writing the same melody or from performing this sequence of notes without paying you on your terms. If you write some code and patent it, I cannot write the same code even if I had never seen yours.
With IP, the government grants a monopoly to a single producer. This is just like the Middle Ages when the prince would permit only one silk trader to sell within his domain or one bricklayer to build all walls. Monopoly is the opposite of competition. IP is monopoly. Therefore it wars against free-market competition, which is to say, that it is contrary to free enterprise.
History bears this out. Real property rights have always existed. Intellectual property is an invention of modern legislation. It began in England in the 16th century and it spread, slowly at first and then faster. Even then, there was no such thing as universal copyright until just before the turn of the 20th century. Most all great art, literature, and industrial innovation took place without it (Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, etc.)
Even 30 years ago, it would have been completely unthinkable that seeds and software would be rolled into this racket. A few industries are safe and therefore vibrant and profitable (fashion, for example) but there is a terrible thicket growing around everything else.
More recently, the whole system has gone nuts to the point that obsession over patents consumes vast amounts of industrial energy. It is corrupting the capitalist system. Steve Jobs used to say that “great artists steal.” Now Apple routinely accuses everyone else of theft and gets the government to hobble its competition. And copyright now poses a grave threat to the very spirit of the digital age.
What’s the answer? End the whole crazy system. Restore competition. With it comes innovation and growth, peace and free enterprise, cooperation and sharing.
No, this doesn’t mean that all non-scarce goods must be provided at zero price but only that if a producer wants access restriction, it has to emerge from the market and not be enforced by the state. Regardless, the market tends toward openness not restriction.
You don’t accept the conclusion? That’s fine. It took me some six years to come around to Kinsella’s point of view. And when I finally did, I became gradually amazed at the implications.
I discovered that this essay is not just about IP. It’s about reorienting our understanding of the way society functions. It restores the idea of learning and emulation as market forces worthy of being taken seriously.
One begins to realize that the world we see and touch, the world of scarce goods, represents a tiny fraction of reality. Ideas are the driving force of history and once those are known, they become part of the blessed commons that makes the world work.
Even if you do not eventually agree with him, think of the benefits of working it out in your own mind. This subject causes you to think seriously about fundamentals such as property rights and human freedom. You consider critical questions such as the role of government and its impact on human association and freedom of speech.
You can disagree. Maybe you can refute him. Maybe he is fundamentally wrong. But what is the most important work that we really do here on earth? We think. We turn over ideas in our mind. That’s the most important work we do. The first step to saving civilization from tyranny is thinking.
I know of no essay in the last half century that causes our minds to work so hard. In this sense, Kinsella is our benefactor.
It is my great honor that Kinsella has chosen the Laissez Faire Club as the venue into which to release this new edition of his remarkable essay.