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Mises.org in the Context of Publishing History

October 26, 2009

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureProduction Theory

[This speech was given on October 24, 2009, at the Birthplace of Economic Theory conference in Salamanca, Spain.]

 

Standup comedian Louis C.K. has a routine called "everything's amazing, nobody's happy."

The gag has people on an airplane, sitting on comfy chairs and flying through clouds. They are complaining that the wireless connection is too slow.

There is truth here. Capitalism has made everything amazing, and yet everyone these days seems to hate capitalism.

Let's leave aside the problem that it takes economic understanding to see cause and effect. There is a more general tendency to take whatever material goods surround us as something granted by fate, our own personal state of nature, and a human right that is ours by a grant of justice. We fail to see our current wealth for what it is: a historical contingency that came about through the sweat and toil of generations that preceded us.

Its permanence is presumed. The goods are ours to redistribute by force if necessary. The services and the tools they require belong not to individuals but to all, so they can be taxed at will. Nothing can harm them or reduce their number.

I fear that the same is true with publishing. For only 500 years have books been copied by machines, after several millennia in which handwork was the only way to spread the written word. For only 150 years have books been available to all classes of society. Every innovation in publishing has meant greater distribution at ever-lower prices, culminating in today's print-on-demand methods and universal access. Digital methods have set the written word free as never before.

Kids today ask their parents, Were you born before the internet? They are vaguely aware that there was life before the web, but they conglomerate it with the days before automobiles and running water. There is something to this. The advent of digital media has meant a complete revolution in publishing, which makes Johannes Gutenberg's movable type appear as a mere stage of progress.

And yet, do we appreciate what this means for us? I don't think we do, not fully. And I worry that failing to appreciate this, liberals in the Misesian tradition will not fully comprehend what it means to push the literature of our tradition into digital form.

If we could understand this meaning, we would be far more optimistic about the future, provided only that we believe in the power of ideas. So I would like to take a step back and have a look at the role of digital media in the history of publication generally.

Looking at the sweep of publishing history, the goal of all innovation has been the same:

  • Lower the cost
  • Widen the distribution
  • Make permanent the result

There is no success for anyone who attempts to resist these three motivating forces.

There were sometimes tradeoffs between the goals. For example, the early scribes chose parchment over papyrus. Papyrus was less expensive, but parchment was seen as more durable and therefore the scribes' work would be preserved.

The work of a scribe was largely unchanged from the beginning of recorded history to the middle of the 15th century. The scribe in a monastery such as Salamanca would work every day for up to 8 hours, breaking for Psalm singing and Mass, and working with a whole team of other specialists in graphics and ink to produce perhaps one book per year.

Until this point in history, it might have been easy to believe that the book and all that it represents fell within the economic classification of a scarce good. This is to say that by its nature, a book cannot satisfy existing demand, must be rationed by price, and is radically finite, capable of being duplicated with time and sweat.

It might have been easy to conflate the work that went into making the book, and the physical properties of the book with the message and the signs in the book itself. In fact, these are really two different things, and all of the progress since has worked to delineate the difference between what is scarce by its nature (paper, binding, time) versus what is potentially capable of infinite duplication (the ideas and formulations in the book itself).

It was out of the institution of the scribe that the invention of printing came; not all at once, but over the hundred years preceding movable type, using leather and wood cuts and a variety of other techniques. The innovations began in monasteries. But with commercial printing came the most remarkable thing of all, a phenomenon that took books out of their scarce state toward their potential of being a completely nonscarce good. That phenomenon is known as the mechanized copy.

We can understand this by reference to the parable of the loaves and fishes. An apostle attending a sermon by Jesus had brought only enough food for himself. When the crowd became hungry, Jesus was able to copy his lunch infinitely and feed the entire multitude. The Gospels are careful to add that there was still more left over at the end.

"The market process is always driving profits to zero."

This is precisely what printing made possible. The work on the ideas and the preparation of the first manuscript required time and labor on a scale few of us can even imagine today. But once the tools for printing were in place, an approximate copy of the original could be made.

Aside from paper and machines, there was nothing that limited the number of copies that could be made. The text itself was a nonscarce thing. To realize the unlimited potential of print became the dream of anyone with an idea to spread, whether it was in philosophy, music, law, or theology.

When movable-type printing appeared with the Mainz Psalter in 1457, it seemed that the institution of the scribe would be no more, and monks all over Europe debated what to do. On the one hand, the religious communities had the strongest interest in printing advances. On the other hand, the class of professional scribes associated with monasteries of course opposed the advance, in order to protect the high status of their specialized services.

After the development of printing, and then movable type, German abbot Johannes Trithemius exhorted his monks to continue to copy books. He claimed that printing had a shorter life, and that the automated printing technique denied monks the discipline associated with hand scribing. He worried too that the monks would have idle hands if printing became more fashionable.

But this concern didn't last longer than a few decades. By the late 15th century, the printing houses were working almost exclusively for monasteries, and monasteries themselves had established printing houses. Far from having taken away work for the monks, it became obvious that the new tool made their work more efficient. Their work could be made ever more valuable. The works of Trithemius himself, on a variety of topics, would eventually be printed in many editions.

Movable type made possible an unprecedented explosion in literary works. Michael Clapham says in his three-volume work on the history of printing technology,

A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 336.

Other experts suggest that Gutenberg's commercial innovations led to an increase of book production by a factor of 1,000. About 115 books are attributed to the early movable-type printers. About 30,000 editions are attributed to the later half of the 15th century.

This increase is astonishing by the standards of the time but it is a blip on the screen in ours. After all, looking at Mises.org data, we can estimate to have sent some 100 million editions of our articles and books flying around the world. And keep in mind that this measures only the work of our servers, and doesn't include the thousands of servers around the world that host versions of our content.

Since we are in Spain, I would like to say a few words about the printing entrepreneurs from this country's 16th century. Their role in pushing history forward is not noted often enough.

Lambert Palmart (1440–1493) was the first printer in Spain. He worked from Valencia, the headquarters of commerce. He printed some 15 books in his career, which was an incredible accomplishment, the first in 1475. In Saragossa, there was also Matthew of Flanders, who printed four additional books. Seville was the third most prominent city for the expansion of printing in Spain. Here lived Antonio Martinez, Alonso del Puerto, and Bartolomme Segura, all of whom printed throughout the 1480s.

Tortosa was home to what became a vibrant and organized printing firm, which printed fully 28 books by 1500. Burgos was host to the firm of Frederick of Basel who was in business with Michael Wenssler, and they made 35 books. Another addition to the list of Spanish printing heroes is Arnaldo Guillen de Brocar, one of many so-called wandering printers who set up shop at Logrono, Alcala, and Valladolid. He, like the others, printed mainly Bibles and theological works.

Finally, our list would not be complete without mention of John and Jacob Kromberger, who set up shop in Seville with some partners and local workers and eventually came to print some 239 books of theology, law, medicine, and music. It was this firm that printed missionary tracts in Spanish to be sent to the New World and Mexico in particular. They did even more than that: in 1539, they put together a full printing outfit and sent it directly to Mexico, where it printed 8 books. This was the first printer to appear in the New World.

"The marginal cost of downloads is approaching zero. The access is approaching universal. The capacity for copying is infinite. And the results are everlasting."

So on behalf of the New World, I say thank you to Spain not only for the economic thought that made free enterprise thrive in the Western hemisphere but also for the first printer to ever come to our shores.

For anyone in love with free markets, the 16th and 17th centuries was a time to witness that wonderful beauty of ordered production. New capital combined with new skills to bring the world more of what it needed and wanted. The rush into the book market by printers of all shapes and sizes, and in all countries of Europe, was a wonderful thing to behold.

But there was a threat on the horizon: mercantilism, the theory that producers needed special protection from government in order to remain healthy in an atmosphere of extreme competitive pressure. Producers were beginning to discover then what every business knows today: namely, that one aspect of free enterprise is that it denies long-run profits to producers.

The market process is always driving profits to zero, as profitable companies are imitated by innovative upstarts using cheaper and more efficient methods. Society benefits from this process, but in order for an established firm to stay on top, it can never stop innovating and striving for excellence.

The answer to this reality in many trades was to seek government protection from competition abroad and to ask favors from the prince to be the only and favored producer. This served both as a guarantee that people would continue to be provided with the goods and services they needed, and as a guarantee that the producer would be protected against the distraction of competitive pressure from others. That's the theory and practice of mercantilism, and it's a perfect recipe for hobbling progress.

Just as the printers had driven the scribes out of business, the printers were facing extreme competition by the 18th century. They sought protection from more efficient upstarts, often called pirates, who were making life hard for this very profitable industry.

These pirate firms were publishing older works and distributing them very cheaply and widely. The dominant firms claimed that this practice was undermining their ability to fund new works and was thus inhibiting innovation.

The established printers tapped into the mercantilist spirit, but with a special twist. They claimed that words on the page constituted a special form of property. When they were copied by a firm other than the current publisher, they claimed, their property rights were being invaded. Their "intellectual property" was being stolen.

Now, on its face, this is a preposterous claim. Once ideas are known by others, they are copied. They cannot be owned in the conventional sense, or, another way of putting this is that the ownership of the ideas becomes multiplied without end. The only way to possess an idea as exclusive property is to never share it with another person. Once shared, the idea takes flight.

What's more, the entire industry had been born in the world of copying, not in making original work. Most famously, the most profitable text to publish was the Bible itself and its most ancient transcriptions and translations. In fact, this had been the driving motivation of the invention of the press in the beginning, just as it had been the driving motivation of the scribes.

"We push the envelope as far as we can."

For this reason, it is crucial to understand the appearance of copyright as nothing other than an aspect of the mercantilist principle. The claims about "intellectual property" were nothing but a ruse offered up by printers as a way of seeking legal protection from competition.

On the Continent, no one bought into this gibberish, seeing it for exactly what it was: a sop to producers, which would have inhibited the whole engine of publishing from the ancient world to the present. They saw that copyright does the opposite of the long-established goals. It raises costs. It limits distribution. And it dooms works to a short life, given the uncertainties of the industry.

This was a terrible direction to go, and in only one place in the world did it take hold: England, which was undergoing a terrible religious struggle. Copyright became useful to the crown in order to suppress works incompatible with the official religion, whatever it happened to be at the time. And so in the 18th century, there were endless fights in England over this matter.

Meanwhile, on the Continent, publishing remained competitive and free for the hundred years after the first copyright statute was imposed on England. Even given England's laws, copyright statutes were largely ineffective at hobbling the market process until the imposition of international copyright law in the late 19th century. Laws have grown tighter and tighter in the 20th century, until we have reached the point of absurdity since 1995 in the United States, with laws that have pretty well doomed a half century of scholarship to ruin.

If you leave the state and state-protected industries in charge long enough, they will strangle progress to the point that civilization completely stagnates. In the publishing industry, digital media couldn't have come at a better time. It is saving what the state and the dominant publishers are trying to kill.

The web and digital media are to the establishment what the printers were to the scribes, and what the pamphleteers were to the established book makers. Digital media threatens what they believe to be the core of their existence right now — namely the restriction of what should be completely free, and the imposition of scarcities on what should really should be nonscarce.

Let us return now to the three principles that drive progress in publishing: low costs, wide distribution, permanent results. The web has achieved all three in the most spectacular way. The marginal cost of downloads is approaching zero. The access is approaching universal. The capacity for copying is infinite. And the results are everlasting.

As you know, the Mises Institute is furiously posting as many works in the Austroliberal tradition as we can scan, and we are working at a pace and with a discipline that is on the order of the older scribes. Our entire literature archive is completely open source, meaning that anyone in the world is free to simultaneously host our results. These editions are like fire. A spark can create a roaring blaze stretching hundreds of miles. This is the power of digital media. It has achieved the dream of every publishing innovation in all of human history.

When a new edition goes up on Mises.org, even before it is publicly linked, it is sent out via torrent to servers worldwide and immediately achieves immortality. It is archived on the site, and thus available to researchers and students all over the world. We have thousands of works available and the number grows daily. We are limited right now by copyright restrictions, but these are being chipped away steadily, and we push the envelope as far as we can.

One of the works that had been copied for hundreds of years, both before and after the printing press, was the Etymologiae, by the 7th-century, Spanish archbishop St. Isidore of Seville. The book summarized all knowledge up to the time it was written, including that of the ancient philosophers, and it somehow still had great notoriety in the 15th century.

Many of the Spanish printers of the 15th and 16th centuries busily printed Isidore of Seville's works. He was not only a brilliant intellectual; he had a passion for two great tasks: the preservation of knowledge through writing and the spreading of knowledge through copying and distribution. It is for this reason that St. Isidore was proposed as the patron saint of the Internet.

I think too of Mises himself, who labored for the six years between 1934 and 1940 to write Human Action, only to have it published in German in Geneva and have it vanish down a memory hole in the midst of ghastly war and global upheaval. He was transported to the United States, where he started over again with an English translation, which was published in 1949 after much internal debate at Yale University Press.

After we became conscious of the power of the web, Human Action was our first giant project. Now we have it out in epub format, in which it can be downloaded an infinite number of times and fly around the planet at the speed of light. Seventy years ago, this work had a very unpromising start. It is now immortal. May we someday say the same of human liberty itself. With Mises.org and its supporters around the world, I do think that day will eventually come.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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