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Hayek, IP, and Knowledge

January 16, 2009

I am hesitant to compliment Tucker’s A Book that Changes Everything, given that he generously over-praises me in it, but I can’t help it–it’s really a great piece–just perfect. And he has a tantalizing suggestion in it: “As I’ve thought more about their book, it seems that it might suggest a revision in classical-liberal theory. We have traditionally thought that cooperation and competition were the two pillars of social order; a third could be added: emulation. In addition, there is surely work to do here that integrates Hayek’s theory of knowledge with the problem of IP”

Now, I’ve long been critical of aspects of the Hayekian focus on “knowledge problems” (see my post Knowledge vs. Calculation). But Tucker has a good point. Property rights are rights in scarce resources. All actions employ means, including scarce resources in our bodies, and in appropriated scarce resources (property). All action employs these means to attain certain ends. But all action is based on information or knowledge: beliefs by the actor about what causal laws are operative, what ends are possible, and so on. People acquire knowledge as they develop and grow; some by introspection and experience, but so much more is acquired dissemination from others, by those in one’s community, and by the inherited body of knowledge passed down, and added to, over the centuries. Emulation and the acquisition of knowledge play a key role–are essential to–society, and economy.

So Tucker has hit the nail on the head: one problem with IP is that by monopolizing information, knowledge–patterns–it restricts and locks up the flow of knowledge. It thus impedes the operations of the free market and productivity, by reducting the scope of human action, impairing its efficiency by hampering the means at one’s disposal.Update: See also my Against Intellectual Property, p. 53, noting that “All action, including action which employs owned scarce means (property), involves the use of technical knowledge. Some of this knowledge may be gained from things we see, including the property of others.”

Also, see my Knowledge, Calculation, Conflict, and Law, pp. 58-59, arguing that it should be realized that “knowledge” is merely a “technical problem that confronts any individual when choosing means to achieve certain ends, and when deciding which ends to pursue. … The need to acquire knowledge faces even Crusoe alone on his island, who has no need for private-property rules because there are no other people and thus no possibility of interpersonal conflict.”

And see Guido Hülsmann’s Knowledge, Judgment, and the Use of Property:

However, there is still a more fundamental condition of action. This is the fact that knowledge as such is never scarce. Knowledge problems thus do have a place in economics only insofar as knowledge has to be selected for application. Yet the selection of knowledge depends entirely on the property of the acting person.

At each moment we dispose of a myriad of information, and we often know of many ways to achieve any given end. For example, if my apartment is cold, I could keep my body warm through gymnastics or additional sweaters. I could also burn parts of my furniture or simply turn on the heating and pay higher bills. I could also sit down in my armchair and invent a new technology permitting one to heat my apartment at half of the present cost. To be sure, the latter alternative is the most elegant one. In any case, as conditions do not cease to change, we constantly have to acquire new knowledge if only to conserve our present standard of living. However, economic science does not have to deal with the factors conditioning the acquisition of knowledge.

… For the moment we are entirely unconcerned with the creation of knowledge, that is, of judgments that prove to be successful in action. We do not bother about the way we reduce our sheer ignorance. Rather we have to consider the principles that govern the selection of the judgments that we actually apply in our actions.

…In choosing the most important action we implicitly select some parts of our technological knowledge for application. In other terms, our choices imply a judgment upon the importance of our technological knowledge under the expected conditions of our action. This economic judgment is our only concern. Technological knowledge as such is immaterial for economics.

Notice how Hlsmann here distinguishes between action, and the means one employes, and the “technological knowledge” ones uses to guide one’s actions, to employ various causal means in the world to achieve certain ends–but that it is distinct from action and means.

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