2011-01-13

Have I Resolved the Libertarian Debate over Intellectual Property?

Yesterday, Stephan Kinsella wrote out another article critiquing the Objectivist stance on intellectual property. In this case, he cites a well-known Objectivist critique of Kinsella's stance on intellectual property.

If you've been following this issue much, you should be well aware of the fact that both "sides" (and I use the term pretty loosely now that both Rothbard and Rand are dead) are always talking past each other on this issue. Kinsella and those who agree with him tend to postulate obtuse logical postulates that usually hang on a single premise (false, in my view) which, if rejected, render the entire argument null. The Objectivists, on the other hand, do exactly the same thing.

So let's break it down:
  1. The Objectivists (who came first) believe that all property stems from logic and reason and mankind's right to use it in order to survive. It is easy to understand their theory, but if you reject this as the source of property rights, then their view of property rights tends to fall apart.
  2. The anarcho-capitalists, in contrast, believe that all property stems from scarcity. It is easy to understand their theory, but if you reject this as the source of property rights, then their view of property rights tends to fall apart.
This is a decades-old debate that will likely not end any time soon. However, if I may be so bold, I would like to challenge both parties to stop talking about intellectual property and start having an open (and civil) debate about the source of property rights.

It is utterly senseless to debate some particular property right when two parties disagree at the Definition Stasis. The solution is not to continue on in their own private worlds telling themselves how right they are. The solution is to get together, publicly, and debate the specific point of disagreement.

Do rights come from scarcity or do they come from reason? I would suggest neither. Human rights exist regardless of how scarce they are or how reasonable the person holding them. These definitions are silly and obtuse. We need to do a bit better than that.

As for intellectual property, I would suggest that the main problem with the Objectivist stance is not that their source of rights is wrong, but rather the fact that IP enforcement involves attempting to prevent people from doing something even if they have figured out how to do it all on their own. If I learn Coca-Cola's secret formula by trial-and-error, the Coca-Cola Company should not be allowed to prevent me from producing it and selling it (since I did not actually violate their patent).

The main problem with the anarcho-capitalist position, on the other hand, is that it assumes that every idea is nothing more than a thought-pattern. This isn't just unromantic, it's absurd. It would be foolish to claim that Beethoven's 9th Symphony is nothing more than a particular arrangement of existing notes. It is a work of art. It takes more than a random-number generator to produce it. It takes ideas, creativity, individuality, and yes reason.

So let's start talking about where rights come from, and sort out IP once we get there.