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Without Rejecting IP, Progress is Impossible

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As Kinsella points out, a major feature of Jacob Huebert’s book Libertarianism Today is that he deals with the reality that issues of “intellectual property” constitute a major area of state expansion today and also present a serious challenge to libertarians. I can recall my own excitement when I heard that IP issues would be given an entire chapter in this book, literally being written into the libertarian apparatus as an essential part of what libertarianism implies.

The IP issue only emerged at the top of the list of theoretical priorities within the last few years, but the results have been spectacular, not only in helping libertarians make sense of the existing IP wars (in the news every day) but also in helping to clarify fundamental issues that everyone thought were largely settled (e.g. property rights).

So libertarians are really the only thinkers who can make sense of how issues of copyright, patent, and trademark have provided the state a major excuse to attack real property rights. Thanks to the work of Kinsella, we’ve come to realize how important the difference between scarce and non-scarce goods really is in making sense of the world around us. And this knowledge has assisted in clarifying even matters concerning the structure of society, the path of social development through the “free good” of information, and the absolute centrality of learning (in the Hayekian sense).

As just one example, I used to present the market framework as consisting of two broad forces: cooperation (division of labor and trade) and competition (rivalry between producers). I now see that a third force is just as important as these two, namely, the emulation of successful behaviors and the avoidance of unsuccessful ones. Without this emulative force through the free good of information, social development is truncated and stilted. Too much IP can actually destroy civilization and we are reduced to the status of animals, unable to improve over time. With emulation and the freedom to learn and apply that learning, we can have progress. The bogus idea of “intellectual property” is really nothing more than a mercantilist idea (a legal privilege that a single producer possess) that creates a stoppage in the learning/emulative process and thereby diverts the path of social development.

Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard variously spoke of these issues (some good observations and some missteps), but full clarity has arrived only in the last few years. The implications go far beyond just discerning the “libertarian political position” on matters of copyright or patent. This realization has changed the way we understand how markets themselves work. The implications are so profound as to amount to a gigantic leap in theory that will continue to be teased out for many years, as scholars read back into the history of thought and apply these insights into their work today.

There will be dramatic revisions taking place in the future in a large range of issues. I can think of one area now: the long-running claim in libertarian circles that there exists something like an “intellectual structure of production” as an analogy to the one that exists in the physical world of scarce resources. Well, why does a structure of production exist in the first place? Because of scarcity: there has to be a system for rationing and allocating time and resources via prices and interest rates. But what if there is no scarcity, no contest for resources, no rivalry, and goods (ideas) can be copied and copied infinitely without taking anything away from anyone? Clearly under these conditions, there is no traditional “structure of production” at all.

Ideas are an example of such a non-scarce good that needs no restricting, no rationing, no allocating, no pricing, no economizing. To impose something like a structure of production on them is to profoundly misunderstand their nature and the possibilities. The spreading of ideas is not in any way analogous to the way a computer is built or a factory turns out cars. It is more like a gigantic dust storm in which each particle can be multiplied without end and blow in any and all directions at all once. This is why the flow of ideas cannot be modeled much less controlled. All we can do is release the ideas and push them forward through any and every means, and then watch what happens.

This is only one of the realizations that comes about through a proper understanding of “intellectual property.” This is why I think Huebert is absolutely correct in adding an entire chapter on this topic. Until this issue is fully understood, and embraced, I seriously doubt that anyone can make much progress as a libertarian intellectual who seeks to understand the world as it is. In this way, this book is of historic significance.

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Contact Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Editorial Director of the American Institute for Economic Research. He is author of It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes and Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo. Send him mail.

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