Faculty Spotlight Interview: Stephan Kinsella
Stephan Kinsella is a registered patent attorney and General Counsel for Applied Optoelectronics, Inc; also Senior Fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Editor of Libertarian Papers, and Director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom (C4SIF). He has published numerous articles and books on IP law, international law, and the application of libertarian principles to legal topics, including International Investment, Political Risk, and Dispute Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2005); Louisiana Civil Law Dictionary (Quid Pro, forthcoming 2011); and Against Intellectual Property (Mises Institute, 2008).
A former adjunct law professor, he has taught courses at the online Mises Academy–including “Rethinking Intellectual Property: History, Theory, and Economics,” this past winter and “Libertarian Legal Theory: Property, Conflict, and Society,” a 6 week course that started Monday, Jan. 31.
Stephan Kinsella got his BSEE, MSEE (electrical engineering), and JD (law degree) from LSU and LL.M. (master’s in international law) from King’s College London.
He was a partner with the law firm Duane Morris, doing IP law. He practiced oil & gas law, and IP law, in Houston, 1992-94; then patent and IP thereafter.
He is a practicing lawyer, doing patent and other types of law as a general counsel for a high tech laser company; and he also writes and teaches and lectures on legal and libertarian/economic topics. Legal–he published legal treatises for Oxford University Press on IP and international and commercial law; and on the other, he edits Libertarian Papers, he is the founder and director of C4SIF, fights against IP on every front he can, and is a lecturer on libertarian and legal topics for Mises Academy.
His main interests are libertarian political theory, philosopy, and Austrian economics, though he has written and spoken a great deal on IP in recent years due to increased interest in this topic.
What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
I have a job as a lawyer for a company, and a family. My main hobbies, outside of philosophy, Austrian economics, and libertarian theory, teaching, writing, and involvement with the MIses Institute, include science fiction and novels, science, movies, tennis, snow skiing, and traveling and spending time with my family. I used to greatly enjoy motocross and hope to get back into it someday, if I can find time. My son attends a Montessori school so I have spent a lot of time in recent years learning about Montessori and being involved with his school and other parents there. But over the past 20 or so years I have made great friends in the Austro-libertarian community, including great people such as Guido Huelsmann, Hans Hoppe, Lew Rockwell, Peter Klein, Tom DiLorenzo, Jim Yohe, Scott Kjar, Jacob Huebert, Tibor Machan, PJ Doland, Gil Guillory, Jeff Tucker, Roderick Long, Mark Brandly, John Cobin, Roberta Modugno, Lee Iglody, Jeff Barr, Doug French, Deanna Forbush, Brad Edmonds, Karen De Coster, David Gordon, Hunt Tooley, Sean Gabb, Jeff Herbener, Tony Deden, Toby Baxendale, Walter Block, Joseph Salerno and many others that I truly feel privileged to know. A “normal” life without these connections would be far less rich and meaningful. And there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of younger Austro-libertarians I have had the pleasure of interacting with in recent years.
What drew you to the Austrian school and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
I explain a bit of this in How I Became A Libertarian (published as “Being a Libertarian” in I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians, compiled by Walter Block; Mises Institute 2010). I’m 45 and have been libertarian since about 11th grade, or 29 years ago, when a librarian at Catholic High School recommended Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to me. This led me to a love of philosophy and libertarianism, and eventually to Mises, Rothbard, and other Austrians, as well as free market economists like Milton Friedman. Over time, primarily because of the work of Mises, Rothbard, and Hoppe, I came to see how crucially important the Austrian economic paradigm is for clear libertarian and legal thinking. It’s one reason Austrianism plays a strong role in most of my writing, and is a primary theme of my current Mises Academy course Libertarian Legal Theory: Property, Conflict, and Society.
In one sense, I agree with the wertfrei approach of Austrians–that we should distinguish positive economic analysis from normative views. On the other, I don’t see how any decent human who has Austrian insights will not lean towards a libertarian view of things: if you value peace, prosperity, and cooperation, and you have basic economic literacy, then you cannot help but favor a free market and private property. It’s hard to imagine someone who understand Austrian economics but would favor statist market intervention anyway; he would have to be some kind of weird Austrian genius misanthrope. And conversely, I think a working knowledge of the basics of free market and Austrian economics, and the Austrian dualist approach to methodology (its opposition to monism-scientism-empiricism) is crucial to a sound understanding of normative and political/legal theory. To my mind, they mesh beautifully.
As for the Mises Institute, it is the primary center for the study and promulgation of Misesian Austrian and Rothbardian thought. One of my favorite introductory works, in addition to the standards such as Bastiat’s The Law, Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, and Rothbard’s For A New Liberty, was the great and underappreciated collection by Rothbard and Rockwell, The Free Market Reader. In law school in 1988 or so, I visited my good friend Jack Criss, an Objectivist in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was a libertarian AM radio talk show host. Lew Rockwell was a guest on Jack’s show that afternoon; I was able to say hello to Lew during a commercial, which gave me a thrill.
As a young lawyer and budding legal-libertarian scholar in Philadelphia in 1994 I wrote a law review article on Hoppe’s recent book (The Undeniable Morality of Capitalism), which led to attending the John Randolph Club meeting in October 1994, near Washington, D.C. My primary goal was to meet Hoppe, Rothbard, and Rockwell. I was thrilled to meet them, and was able to get Murray to autograph my copy of Man, Economy & State, which he inscribed “To Stephan: For Man & Economy, and against the state —Best regards, Murray Rothbard.” Well, I know the nicer one-volume edition is out now, but just try to get me to part with my musty two-volume copy. Rothbard unfortunately passed away on January 1995, but I shall be forever grateful that I was able to meet him.
I was attracted to the Mises Institute of the 1980s and 1990s. But in the last five or so years, it has become the dominant intellectual force for liberty and economic literacy on the planet, in part because it has been very clear as to its mission of spreading the word of economic literacy. Because of its fidelity to its vision, it embraced the new opportunities offered by the Internet (see Doug French, “The Intellectual Revolution Is in Process“; Jeff Tucker, “A Theory of Open” and “up with iTunes U“; and Gary North, “A Free Week-Long Economics Seminar“). Its influence has only grown because of the embrace of the idea of open information.
Who is your greatest inspiration?
I don’t really think like this. I have never been one of these people who wants to shake hands with Obama or Reagan (or many other people) or celebrities or to visit every continent or state and check off some list. I admire many people: Hoppe, Rockwell, etc., and all the libertarians working for liberty in their various ways. In a way, my love of my fellow man is my greatest inspiration: to fight for a way civilized people can have peace and prosperity and cooperation. For people I greatly admire I am too humble to think I can achieve what they have, so would not say they inspire me: I have in mind people like Mises, Rothbard, Rockwell, and Hoppe. I am happy to admire and learn from and support them and their missions and goals.
You are one of the leaders in arguing against intellectual property. What caused you to research this topic and how do you feel about its success? Is there room for progress?
As I note in “Intellectual Property and Libertarianism,” I initially accepted Rand’s arguments for IP, but I was uneasy with them. There were obvious problems with Rand’s argument. So throughout law school I kept thinking about it, trying to find a better way to justify patent and copyright. Finally I realized the solution was to stop assuming they were valid and then to realize how incompatible these rights are with libertarian property rights. At the same time I was deepening my experience practicing patent law, and nothing I saw contradicted my growing skepticism.
I have always been, and am still, most interested in things like the basics of libertarian political philosophy (the foundations of rights, etc.), basic and Austrian economics, methodology and epistemology, and philosophy in general. Tactics and strategy are less appealing to me, in part because I am leery of their corrupting influence; in part because it is not my strong suit. But I felt I had to write on IP because I had pondered it and knew a lot about it from my practice. So I did, and it became controversial, provocotive, and influential, even though it was never my strongest interest or passion (either as libertarian or lawyer–as lawyer I always preferred other practice areas like family law or oil & gas law).
So the first few years after my initial major IP article (2000), I tried to play down the IP stuff and not be “Mr. IP”. But I started relenting, in part because I realized this area was a neglected one, was crucially important, and that there was still much more to figure out. So I have continued to write in this area, and have seen that it integrates into and enlightens many other areas of libertarian inquiry. Last year I established the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom (C4SIF), to permit further study of IP law and its damaging role to rights, society, and innovation.
Do you have any new works on the way?
I am working on a greatly expanded version of my Against Intellectual Property, tentatively entitled Copy This Book, and also on a book tentatively entitled The Ethics of Action: Fundamentals of Libertarian Legal Theory.
What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work? What drives you to do what you do?
I am a realist, but try not to be a pessimist. On one level I only hope to improve myself and my ideas, and make friends with people I admire and respect, and to learn from and profit from them. I also hope to nudge the discussion in what ways I can in the direction of liberty. I think that even though it seems an uphill battler, it’s important to fight anyway. This is important to me: to have done all I can in our social context to fight for liberty. I think humanity will someday achieve significantly greater degrees of liberty. I hope it comes in the next few decades, but even if it’s 500 years away, I want to fight for the right side.
Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
Yes. Do not focus on short-term goals; this way discouragement lies. Have principles and integrity. Do the right thing, and fight for truth and liberty, because it is right, even if it seems to be an uphill battle. But I would say: live a good life. Enjoy it. Think hard before becoming altruistic. And as I noted in “Nock and Leonard Read on “One Improved Unit” and the Power of Attraction“, your primary task is to improve yourself–to strive for excellence in yourself. Then you become a bright light that attracts people; they see you are good, and successful, and worth emulating or listening to–so you win people over by the power of attraction. They come to you, and then you have more success spreading the ideas of liberty than if you go around being a pest.