26 July 2011

A False Analogy

Robin Hanson makes a predictable mistake:

Similarly, the kinds of innovation activities and intellectual property rights that make sense depend on available institutions and technologies. I’m happy to admit that today intellectual property (IP) is not obviously a good idea. Such property can create large “anti-commons” transaction and enforcement costs that greatly raise the cost of combining old ideas into valuable new ideas. Such costs often outweigh the social benefits of the incentives to create IP, in order to sell it. Today, it is often better to rely on other social incentives to innovate, incentives that don’t require such expensive support.
But if true, this is a sad fact about our limited abilities, not a fundamental natural law or right. You have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them. You owe them, at least your gratitude. Yes for now it may be best to let you take innovations freely without paying, since the alternative seems too expensive. But you have no right to expect that situation to last forever, any more than ranchers had a right to expect they could forever let their animals trample nearby farms.

The problem with Hanson’s comparison of IP rights to real property rights is that intellectual production is not tangible whereas real property is, and one can adapt another’s idea without in any way diminishing its usage by its originator.  As Jefferson aptly observed centuries ago, as it is possible to use another’s candle to light one’s own without diminishing the other’s flame, so too can one use another’s idea as one’s own without diminishing the other’s usage of their idea.  Taking another person’s ideas and using them does not any way prevent him from using his own ideas in whatever way he sees fit.  Since using another’s ideas does not trample upon his rights, it is absurd to compare this to cows trampling a neighbor’s fields.  Using an idea is not inherently deprivatory in the way that using property is, and so the comparison is false.

At any rate, since ideas are not tangible, there is no conceivable limit to their spread save for demand.  Basically, demand, not supply, is the limiting factor for the production of any given idea and, as such, there is no need for prices or any other limitation of ideas.  Prices indicate scarcity relative to demand, and attempting to attach prices to ideas is essentially an attempt to attach scarcity to ideas.  Since there are an infinite number of ideas and production costs of ideas are close to nil (or at least so close to infinity and nil respectively that the upper bound makes a price schedule impossible), the only effect that bringing costs to ideas would be to limit something that is naturally unlimited.

Also, note that Hanson’s claims that “you have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them” and “you owe them, at least your gratitude” are both spurious.  The first is false, but only because of how he qualifies it.  He is correct in saying that no one has the right to enjoy the innovations of others.  No one has the right to anything save for life, liberty, the pursuit of property, and any derivatives thereof.  But it does not stand to reason that anyone deserves to be paid for what they produce, whether it be an idea or a physical object.  Quite simply, no one has a right to an income of any sort.  If you wish to be paid, convince consumers that you deserve it, whether it be on the technical merits of your product or whether it be on the ease of purchase relative to the cost of piracy.  In keeping with this, if one does not have a right to income for producing something, then one certainly does not deserve gratitude either.  Again, if a producer wants something from consumers, he must make or do something that causes consumers to respond favorably.

As can be seen, Hanson’s argument is riddled with plenty of intellectual errors, leading to erroneous conclusions.  He would do well to simply acknowledge that IP is a myth, and that no one is inherently deserving of anything just because they happened to produce something.

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