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Ideas are not Property, on dismantling IP

The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously this past week that human genes may not be patented. That was a good decision. However those in support of this ruling are by and large hypocrites. They vociferously decried the negative consequences of upholding such patents (limiting research, higher costs, limited choice) but then fail to acknowledge these same deleterious consequences occur for ALL patents. It’s not like these bad things don’t occur for “legitimate” patents but do occur for “illegitimate” ones. Patents are the problem, not their “legitimacy.”

So what are patents (and copyright) (aka Intellectual Property or IP)? Quite simply they are a state granted monopoly for a fixed period of time during which the presumed creator has an exclusive right to do with their creations as they see fit. The hope is that in providing, as a reward, a period of monopolous profits such entities will be incentivized to expend resources in creation and thereby benefit mankind. This unquestioningly presumes that risk should be subsidized by the state. Risk the right way and the state will support you, risk the wrong way and you’re out in the cold. But that’s ok, because IP helps the “little guy” right? Wrong. The IP holder must enforce their IP. This necessitates enormous financial resources to legally pursue IP violations. Only the “big boys” can afford this and thus it becomes clear for whom the IP system was created. The IP system is nothing more than a symptom of state and business cronyism. One of the hallmarks of cronyism is the arbitrariness of the rules and regulations supporting it and IP is nothing if not arbitrary. IP terms have changed over the years, often in concert with the needs of the large corporations whose IP is threatened by expiration.

Although its cronyist roots are reason enough to withdraw support from the IP system, we find that upon closer inspection the whole raison d’être of IP is actually quite absurd. IP rests on the idea that mere ideas can be considered property. For a proper claim (title) to be made, the material in question must be “scarce.” “Scarcity” means there is some marginal cost of production, e.g. clothing is commonly available but it is scarce because it does not simply pop into existence; obtaining it requires some non-trivial expenditure of resources. Where there is scarcity there exists the potential for rivalry or conflict over some particular good. There are two ways to prevent such conflict: 1) invent a way to make the good non-scarce or (2) establish property rights in such objects.  Property rights are the civilized, non-violent alternative to killing each other in order to determine ownership/possession. But when it comes to ideas or non-scarce goods there can be no conflict because both parties can simultaneously possess the thing in question. Therefore without conflict there is no reason to have property rights. Such rights are entirely absurd – you might as well attempt to establish property rights in looking at the moon or the right to whistle. The only possible conflict is over who can legitimately say they thought or did something “first”. Fine, fight over that if you wish. But that is not a property right; just because you had the name “Greg” before me doesn’t preclude me from also using that name.

The idea of scrapping the entire IP system will raise the ire of those who have fallen sway to the false choice paradigm we are propagandized with our whole lives, namely that without such “protections” people will simply stop being creative and all new literature, music and inventions would dry up. Seriously. Now doesn’t that sound pretty stupid when you say it out loud. Do you really think there are NO other possible ways creators might get remunerated for their work? Do you truly believe that patents and copyright are the ONLY possible way this could work? These types of objections are about as imaginative as the “but who will pick the cotton?” rejoinders thrown at those that desired to end slavery. In other words, one’s lack of imagination does not invalidate my argument. End the shackles of IP and let loose the entirety of human creativity. (For a more in depth discussion please see the godfather of anti-IP, Stephen Kinsella’s “Against Intellectual Property” which can be downloaded, for free.

The following is an adjunct to the discussion above . The question “But how will this work?” is not a refutation of the principle that IP as a concept is invalid… however…it can be an interesting intellectual exercise to start from a priori free market principals and imagine how people might conduct themselves in order to accomplish the same goals absent a coercive state influence. I will go through some of the more common objections to dismantling IP.
The most common objection to ending IP is that businesses simply won’t innovate anymore because other businesses (the parasites) will just copy everything they do which in effect results in the innovating business subsidizing the parasitic businesses who have no R&D budget. There is just one problem with this. It only looks at one side of the equation (however in this case it reverses the usual paradigm of the “seen benefit and unseen harm” described by Bastiat into one of the “seen harm and the unseen benefit”).
These assertions always ignore the benefits to both society AND the business from whom the idea was stolen. Obviously society will benefit with lower prices and more choice (just as they do when drugs go off patent and can be made as generics). However all businesses will benefit because now it is “legal” for everyone to “steal” ideas from everyone else and improve upon them. So for every ten businesses “stealing” from Business A, Business A can in turn “steal” the ideas of ten other businesses themselves – often the same one that “stole” their idea to begin with. The playing field is leveled if everyone can participate. Rather than restricting R&D to just one company that happens to hold a patent, the creative R&D resources of thousands of companies can bang away at some idea, sowing improvements at each iteration, each company striving to outdo the others in either price, efficacy or quality.
As an aside here I would like to mention this is not an endorsement of industrial espionage. By that I mean businesses can have their employees sign non-disclosure agreements (contracts) and if such agreements are violated they have full legal grounds to pursue not only those employees but most likely the business they disclosed it to (tainted fruit as it were). Now some might object and say “well technically the business it is revealed to can’t be sued because they are not party to the contract”. True, however in a truly libertarian system (no employment law tying the hands of the employer or employee) any higher level employment situation (i.e. knowledge workers with the potential to bring innovation to the table) would be established under an employment contract and in such contracts only a fool of an employee would sign such a contract that did not stipulate that the employer will indemnify that employee in any lawsuit related to their actions in the course of employment (which would of course cover conveying ideas/processes learned at a former employer that could benefit the new employer). In that situation then the employer would be a fool to not make entirely sure all information they get from the employee is not covered by any sort of non-disclosure agreement since if it is, and they don’t check, the employer opens themselves up to an enormous amount of liability (indirectly via their employment agreement). This system would of course not stop such transfer of proprietary knowledge, but it would greatly mitigate the likelihood and even today’s system does not stop all of it either so to say that people might find a way around it and so therefore it can’t work is to say what we have today can’t work because people today find ways around our current system.
Now, back to trade secrets: If your process is truly novel and inventive then it will not be readily copied as no one will be able to figure it out (because without patents you would not need to disclose to the world how it works). If it is a secret, then keep it secret. However, if you are the inventor of something fairly obvious (i.e. one-click checkout, round edges on a phone) then it will be trivial for others to copy you. But because the invention was trivial you would not have had much invested it in anyway. Therefore in a free system those that invent truly novel things that are difficult to reverse engineer will naturally reap the most reward before competitors finally figure it out (if ever). “First to market” is still a powerful incentive to innovate. And even after others figure out an invention there is still much value in the reputation of being the seller of the “original” or “authentic” version of something.
Next common objection, “Ok Mr. Smarty pants, without IP you’d have even more firms like the Chinese just making cheap knock offs and putting the innovators out of business and since they aren’t innovating there is nothing to copy from in this iterative process you describe”. Think about what those “knock off” companies are doing. They are making stuff efficiently and inexpensively. They are making it less expensively than the makers of the “original” products. Now to the extent the knock offs are sub par in quality and function, there will be little market penetration beyond those who never would have bought the authentic product to begin with because of price – so no real loss there. But to the extent there are such manufacturers that actually are basically making “generics” of whatever product it is, that means they are of nearly equal quality and efficacy but for a lot less. In other words between the two such companies (the R&D company making it for a lot of money vs the Manufacturing company making it for little money) there is a stark difference in comparative advantage. One is really good at making stuff and one is really good at inventing stuff. That means each will tend to specialize and become better and better at what they do. Without a patent system we would tend to see more company specialization. For example today companies are more vertically integrated in that they invent things and then manufacture them and then waste time and resources going after those that copy them. In a system without patents the “inventor” companies would specialize in R&D and inventing things and then they would turn around and sell the information on how to make some hot new thing to the manufacturing companies. Basically it is contract manufacturing – which already exists today. The resources they formally spent fighting them with are now used to make improvements. The manufacturing firms are weak in R&D but great at manufacturing. It is a natural symbiosis where the strengths and weakness of each partner complement each other. So as companies specialize in this way we get better R&D and we get better manufacturing. It doesn’t mean that companies can’t still invent things and then make them and sell them, it just means that market pressures will tend to minimize the number of companies operating this way. Only companies whose products require enormous capital investment (e.g. auto manufacturing) would likely continue to exist in this arrangement or within markets that are too small to justify specialized manufacturing needs. Just because the structure of businesses today may not work under a no patent system does not mean there is not a different way to structure business that is just as good if not better in terms of net benefits for society in terms of total goods produced and the function of such goods. For example, perhaps without IP the variety and innovation in smart phone technology would be much more advanced than what we have today and there would be greater variety and lower prices, all because all parties could copy off each other, incorporating each new innovation.
And since I’m throwing out ideas about how things might work, let us now turn to how artists (musicians, authors, print, cinema, etc) could ensure remuneration under a no copyright system. One approach used today is the license, which I believe would work in many situations although it does not protect against copying from a non-license holder (e.g. occurring from loss or theft from a license holder) or violation of the license that can’t be tracked to the originator. But for most situations it would work.
Another approach is the pricing approach, i.e. make the product so cheap that the marginal cost of actually pirating is higher than just buying it (e.g. if songs were a nickel is it really worth your time to scour the web for some hack site trying to track down that song…is it really worth it for those people to maintain such a site? It does actually cost money to maintain such sites (domain fees, server hosting fees, etc). Maybe you spend just 5 minutes doing so but even at minimum wage you just wasted 60¢ of you’re your life away when with one click in 2 seconds you could have the song you want for a nickel.
In general, if people are pirating things that means they cost too much (the cost to pirate is lower than the cost of just buying) and if people are scalping things then they cost too little (i.e. you’re basically giving it away). The key is to find that sweet spot of price where the costs of pirating are higher than what it is sold for, but the sell price is not so low that someone can actually realize an arbitrage advantage by buying it at that level and reselling it at a higher level. For unknown artists this approach is already used today. Many simply give away their fares for free or for next to nothing. They simply want to become known. Once they are known and in demand, then they can slowly raise their price.
Another approach is one I call the “trickle down” approach. It is somewhat similar to the system we have of publishing houses or record labels although it is certainly not restricted to such entities (i.e. an artist could sell to whomever they wish at the initial high price). Here’s how it would work: The artist would be paid upfront a very high sum that would cover the total of what they want (the more well known they are, the more they can demand up front). So copying of works really doesn’t hurt them insofar as they have already received everything they expected to get for the work. But the basic idea is incentive driven copy protection. So for example lets say some artist comes out with some great new work and in order to ensure they get as much as they need based on the effort that went into it they would sell each copy of the work for say $200,000. So let’s say only 5 people want it at that price – the artist made a million bucks right off the bat, not over decades of trickling in royalties. Now each of those buyers at $200,000 has the right to resell it. They’ve spent $200,000 so they sure as heck are not going to just give it away, they have a great incentive to get back what they paid and possibly more. They are all competing against each other as well so the price they charge will tend to start out high but drop as they compete more and more in trying to squeeze out every bit of value from their investment. They might sell 200 copies at $1,000 each. If you spent $1000 on a book or CD would you just “share” it with your friends? No. But you might sell it to them or others at a level where you hope to perhaps break even or make a little.
At some point the price reaches a level where the marginal costs become low enough that people will start to trade or give away what they bought. So this system is not much different than from what we have with any hot new product that comes to market. The rich will pay exorbitant amounts to have bragging rights to be the first to have something and as more of them buy it, costs come down and then more and more can afford it until eventually all can afford it. Progressives should love this as the “rich” pay disproportionately more for something based on their income level, but they do so willingly. The “poor” end up getting things for next to nothing or for free. The only real penalty being that the “poor” must wait longer, but is it really a tragedy if those of limited means must wait a few months to enjoy the latest hot album or book or movie when compared to the rich that have access to it immediately? One objection might be this would not work for new or unknown artists. True, and I did not say this is the way it must work for everyone. This is just one idea. And that is the point, there could be dozens of different creative and inventive approach’s people will take up. Many artists today sell direct to their consumers and that works well for the small or unknown artists as they tend to have a loyal following and there is little market to pirate the works of unknowns.
So to ask “how would this work?” is a bit silly – obviously people would figure out ways to make it work. I’ve presented only a handful here. In order to answer this question the onus is shifted from the questioner (who can’t justify his position) and onto the questioned party to come up with the outcome of what will take the creative efforts of thousands or millions to come up with. The questioner presumes that if the answer provided might have even one tiny hole poked in it as to how there might be a problem with this approach or that, then the whole idea must be scrapped. Based on that reasoning we should dismantle the IP system as it has dozens of problems. It certainly hasn’t stopped “piracy” has it? The only fixes offered up amount to nothing more than greater and greater intrusions of state control in our lives (PIPA, SOPA, etc). Must we give up all semblances of privacy and private property in order that the state be enabled to guarantee IP “rights”?

On Voluntaryism, Stateless Societies and Contract Slavery

Recently I got involved an interesting philosophical discussion on Facebook (where else!) concerning taxation and the proposition that if you don’t pay your taxes men with guns will come and take you to jail or kill you (all true). One participant brought some focus to the conversation by distilling down the core argument to one of a) should we have government (b) how shall we pay for it (c) constitutions are like contracts. All good points, however embedded in each one is either a false choice or a fallacious assumption. So below I will reproduce his post and then my follow up as I address some of the main fallacies. 

here is the quoted content from the post I will be responding to:

This conversation, and every conversation about the scope of govt comes back to the same place. The first division is you are either an anarchist or you want some kind of law. The moment you say you want some kind of law, you are agreeing that at some point in the process of enforcing the law, a dude from the govt with a gun will come take you away. And I am okay with that – no point in pretending we have laws if they are not going to be enforced.I am willing to listen to discussion, but anarchy is probably not for me, or most of us. So then it’s like the old joke about the prostitute – we’ve already established what you are (pro-govt of some kind), now we’re just haggling over price. Where is the line in the sand as far as your philosophy of the proper scope of the law?I would suggest that the only useful argument by a libertarian about government is that it ought only exist to prevent one adult from using force or fraud to gain from another adult – whether that gain is via money or to forward an agenda. Situations involving children and the mentally impaired are naturally given to tighter governance.So to me, the idea that we’re arguing over whether or not you must / ought pay federal taxes so the govt can fund its activities is a little pointless. The only real argument for strict Constitutionalists or libertarians ought to be about the USE of the money, not the government’s right to take it. The law of tooth and claw was used to appropriate the land upon which I sit and afterward to create the govt that exists here – the RIGHT is almost irrelevant. Were I to be successful in dissolving this (formerly) useful govt, it is most likely a worse govt would take its place. There is no perfect freedom on this side of heaven, so the notion that no entity can curb my inclinations or bind my freedom is almost childish.We can get into a lot of philosophical discussions about man being created free and whatnot, but the fact is that there will be some govt, and we enter into “contracts” (the Constitution, say) with other free people to create these govts that will enforce our individual rights to property and to secure freedom from invasion, etc. With our ancestors having agreed to some form of these contracts, and most of us agreeing that they ought to exist in one form or another, we should be focused on the quality of the contracts, not the terms of enforcement.

Here is my response:

Your points I think have helped to focus the discussion, however the underlying assumptions simply reinforce the false dichotomous choice that is beaten into us from day one (by our educators, our literature and the state media) – namely that one has a choice of either being ruled by others (in the form of this thing we call government) OR absolute and total chaos with no laws or order whatsoever. Obviously with a choice like that who would pick the latter? And to an extent I think part of the failure for the proper alternative being made understood falls at the feat of us libertarians – we (or some of us) throw the word “anarchy” around and do not explain at all what is intended by the use of that phrase. I personally prefer “voluntaryism” – it’s enough of a neologism that it carries none of the associated emotional baggage of “anarchy”. We want the freedom of choice. Not the freedom to state our choice and have it vetoed by a “majority”, but to actually be allowed to execute our choice.

When we libertarians speak of “freedom from government” we do not intend a lawless, chaotic, anything goes sort of wild west world. Far from it. We want government. We want order. It’s just that we want to pick our own government to associate with. And we do not believe that simply because I happen to live next door to you and you want to associate with a government that establishes rules that promote Ideology A and I want to associate with one that promotes Ideology B, your choice should have any bearing on my choice. 

Think about it for a minute. I’m proposing something no more controversial than what we currently practice today – freedom of religion. If I’m Catholic and I live in a town full of Baptists it would seem ludicrous to anyone to suggest that “well since a majority of people who live here are Baptist, well, you have to be Baptist too, or at the least you have to do all the things the Baptists require” – and that if I didn’t comply I would be throw in jail. That’s insane – and rightly so, and everyone would agree that that would be insane. And so it is no different with government. This type of governance is not unknown. It is sometimes referred to as a “clan” system. In more “primitive” stateless societies families had a self-interest in protecting each other. They came to each other’s defense and helped each other in times of need. In time it became customary for non-family members to join a family or clan for such protection purposes (voluntarily paying or contributing something in return – i.e. truly voluntary “taxation”). However all members of the clan were responsible for the behavior of its members. If one member injured someone in another clan then all members must make restitution. They then obviously had a self-interest in preventing such behavior from those they knew to be the most troublesome. Eventually if a member behaved badly enough consistently enough they were thrown out of the clan and thus had no protection of any kind from any group. They were an “outlaw” – which meant that anyone could kill them, rob them whatever without any consequence whatsoever. That’s a pretty big incentive to not become an outlaw and behave as directed by the customs and laws of your clan. (For a brief discussion of this system in Ireland please see this interview with Gerard Casey by Tom Woods ). In order for all clans to get along they tended to adopt the same basic “common laws” against violence, theft, rape, etc. So in this way we can see how “law” can exist without an over arching state. Everybody is against rape and murder. But not everyone might be for space exploration, or green energy, etc. Essentially each clan is a government, the only difference being they did not have specific geographical boundaries. Members of multiple clans could all live in the same city and get along just fine. There is no reason such a system could not operate today on a larger scale, one where entities very similar to insurance carriers took the place of the role of government in dispute resolution, restitution, crime mitigation (less crime, less to pay out in losses). If such an entity does not provide what people want, they will go elsewhere. Without a barrier to entry imposed by outside regulations no one could ever “take over” such an industry, the market would always be providing those that could do it better, faster, cheaper, etc.

This has gotten a lot longer than I intended, but let me just touch on another point you made. The one of contracts is germane, however you again accept the “party line” that the fact that our ancestors freely entered into a contract (the Constitution) somehow morally binds us to that same contractual obligation in perpetuity. How can it? Are we bound by the contracts our parents sign? If your parents had a huge amount of debt and then died would you want to suddenly be saddled with that? What if I could vote myself out of the contract, but my siblings wanted to remain party to it, and thus I was then bound by their vote – why should I be bound by their choice? There really is no difference between that and the idea that we are all still adhering (or pretending to adhere) to a contractual document signed by people that have all been dead for nearly 200 years. I talk about this idea of contractual slavery more here

Permission to live

The state of Georgia has officially made it illegal to make a living UNLESS you are willing to ask your master for permission first (namely the state & federal government). To wit: I discovered today that in order to maintain the extreme privilege of operating a business in Georgia one must now sign a sworn affidavit and provide documentary evidence that one is a US citizen.

So now not only are business owners drafted into being unwilling arms of the state apparatus by being required to make their employees prove they are US citizens, but now business owners themselves must prove to the state they are US citizens (because clearly that is a real problem, undocumented illegal aliens coming to this country to establish self-sustaining businesses).

What pray tell could be the rationale for this: Well according to OCGA §50-36-1 any “public benefit” one might receive requires said recipient to prove they are a US citizen. However their definition of “public benefit” is quite odd insofar as it includes “benefits” that the state itself REQUIRES business owners to obtain from the state, namely business or other occupational licenses. If a business license given to me by the state is a “benefit” that is causing them so much distress is doling out, I’ll be the first to volunteer that they can keep it. Somehow I think businesses would run just fine absent a framed piece of paper on the wall.

To those not familiar with the regulatory hurdles one must go thorough to operate a business in this state (and I assume most states): this is not merely a one time annoyance, i.e. get your license and you’re done. Oh no, this is an annual event, every year I must prove to my overlords that I was a US citizen last year and oddly enough 12 months later I’m still a US citizen. I need to provide copies of citizenship records, I need an affidavit signed and notarized.  A few years ago it was one form, last year it was 2, now it is 3 this year and I will be shortly required to obtain the not so euphemistically named “Federal work authorization user identification number” in order to enjoy the simple privilege of operating a business and being permitted to hire employees.

But I’m a good little slave to the state and I signed my document with tail tucked between my legs knowing that if I refused to the bitter end I would ultimately be dragged from my home or office at gunpoint – all because I simply see no reason any human being should ask for permission of another human being whether they can work or not. Here’s a copy of the form to which I attached my own “Signing Statement”. If it’s a bit hard to read, here’s what I said:

“Signing statement: I sign this document under duress owing to the implied threat of violence resulting from non-compliance. OCGA §50-36-1 is morally unsound law. My inalienable right to peacefully engage in trade is not predicated or dependent on the prior approval of another person or persons. The state has no authority to say I have no right to work or trade unless I kiss their ring.”

Breaking Bad

I’m old enough that I now find most entertainment to be fairly derivative and predictable. However the TV series “Breaking Bad” is a welcome exception. If you are not familiar with it but enjoy solidly unpredictable drama you owe it to yourself to look into it. The August 12 episode’s ending left the audience in a state of numbed denial [spoiler alert: stop here if you have not seen the episode yet]. The main characters have just clandestinely robbed a train of a key chemical needed to prepare crystal meth when a young boy on a motorbike happens them upon. Without a word one of them pulls out a gun and simply dispatches the boy as blithely as one would a troublesome fly. Why? Because the boy might say something which could lead to their arrest.

After the shock of witnessing the senseless onscreen (albeit fictional) death of a young innocent wore off I came to realize why this scene was so disturbing: this type of violence occurs routinely. The boy’s death is iconic of the reprehensible loss of civilian life in wars. In “traditional” wars civilians usually know where the front line is and can avoid it. Today that is impossible. The wars on “terror” and drugs occur on a global battlefield from which there is no escape. Innocence is no defense: you are just one street address typo away from no-knock raid carried out by machine gun festooned goons.

Apropos to the “preventive” murder depicted, the US repeatedly goes to war upon the same principal of “potential threat neutralization” (Spain-1898, Korea-1950, Vietnam-1965, Iraq-2003). Unsurprisingly the neocons and chicken hawks are now rattling their swords to do the same to other countries (Iran, Syria). We as a nation are engaging in the same onscreen behavior as the thieves in “Breaking Bad”: shooting first for fear of what might happen. This behavior is reprehensible at the individual level and at the national level. The moral validity of actions does not change based on the numbers that simultaneously engage in those actions.

The moral validity of actions does not change based on the numbers that simultaneously engage in those actions.

For parents there is no greater fear than contemplating the untimely death of your child. So consider what kind of a country would inflict on foreign parents our most horrid nightmare. The US has killed both directly (drone strikes) and indirectly (sanctions) hundreds of thousands of children through the cold indifference of our leaders. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in a 1996 interview with 60 Minutes stated that “we think the price is worth it” when asked if the confirmed deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to UN sanctions was “worth it” in relation to the goals of those sanctions. The Bush administration fares no better: he (and Congress) restarted the Iraq war (of which even low estimates are 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties and authorized the use of torture. Likewise Obama has failed to live up to his 2009 Nobel Peace Price. He acts as a remote executioner via the deployment of the “judge, jury, and executioner” drone strikes that have killed countless civilians who are written off as “collateral damage.” Ah, yes, the ends always justify the means. Wake up America. We have “broken bad” and are now the “bad guys.” Would we tolerate Chinese drone strikes of Americans because China deemed them to be a potential “threat” ?

In terms of this country’s meddling, interventionist, blow-back prone foreign policy it doesn’t matter whether Obama or Romney wins; they will both continue our current wars and will have no qualms about starting new ones. If you are tired of the endless wars (drug and terror) and have no more desire for the blood of innocents to be on your hands by way of voting for the “lesser of two evils” (“hmmm… who should I vote for, Hitler or Stalin…”) then consider the alternative that the media is so afraid you might hear about they won’t even include him in national polls: Libertarian Party candidate for president Gary Johnson. 

Privatize Marriage

The right of association is the right to associate with whomever and for whatever reason we please. We can form businesses, churches, private clubs, unions, or a family. Although the US Constitution does not specify this right (the EU and Canadian ones do) I would like to believe all reasonable people would agree we have a right to associate with whomever we please. Oddly enough this “ignored” right still exists today. A man and a woman can live together as can two men or two women or a man and several women. Some may frown upon these associations but there are no laws prohibiting them. So if people can be with whomever they want, then what is the issue concerning non-traditional marriage? The issue is free speech.

Think of it like this: (1) Is it ok to associate with one or more persons? YES (2) Is it ok to publicly proclaim such an association? NO, or rather, it depends. This is true for marriage as well as for other associations. For example, a business can legally announce that it exists (incorporate) only if the business fits into a predefined pigeonhole established by the government (e.g. C-Corp, LLC, etc). Any other structure is “illegal”. Likewise for marriage.

When a couple marries they are saying to the world: “We publicly proclaim that we bind ourselves together and establish mutually beneficial rights and responsibilities – we no longer wish to be in a transient relationship but rather a responsible and enduring one”. The odd thing is that when government definitions of “permissible” associations ignore non-traditional marriage the message is: “Although you are attempting to enter in a mature and responsible relationship, we would prefer you keep it to yourselves and continue living in a manner consistent with a lack of commitment and responsibility.” In other words, attempting to engage in responsible behavior is ignored. Not permitting such public proclamation of the relationship is a restriction of free speech and clearly violates the 1st Amendment.

If people want to associate (marry) that is their right. If a church will do so, great. If it won’t, then too bad (for the couple). The government should not compel private institutions such as churches to operate contrary to their belief structure. Additionally, their right to make such a proclamation does not mean anyone is required to accept it. The lack of use of force runs both ways. I may not stop you from speaking but that doesn’t mean I have to listen or agree with you.

Shifting gears from the political to the lexicological: words mean something. Changing definitions cause confusion. Redefining “marriage” would be like redefining “cars” to encompass motorcycles because they both have wheels and an engine. If the proponents of non-traditional marriage want a word to define their relationship they would do themselves a big favor by coining a new one; I (and others) suggest “pairriage.”

Government is currently the tool that defines what associations are permissible. Each side fights over the tool in an attempt to force their point of view on everyone. The solution is to get rid of the tool. Privatize all associations and remove from government its ability to define permissible relationships.


Birds of a Feather

What kind of bird is the libertarian? Left-wing? Right-wing? The common misconception is that Libertarians are on the “far-right” of the political spectrum. Nothing could be further from the truth. The confusion stems from the total misuse and lack of understanding in the media of the terms “left” and “right”.

First we need to define our terms. What are we measuring? Let’s think of it like a ruler. What units would we have if the small numbers are “left” and large numbers are “right”? Units of State Control. To the left on our “control” ruler we have a value of zero, that is, a complete absence of State Control, or stated positively, it is complete liberty (from the Latin liberalis = free) for the individual arising from the condition of no outside force. So it then follows that as one moves to the right on this scale the degree of State Control increases. Thus, “extreme right” would be those societal structures employing totalitarian regimes in order to “keep the people in line” such as fascism and communism. It then follows that “extreme left” would be total anarchy. Libertarians thus naturally fall on the far (not extreme) left end of the spectrum because we respect the natural rights (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) of the individual and reject the notion that the State can ever have a compelling interest to use force against the individual other than in preventing violations of natural rights. There are libertarians that use the term “anarchist” in various forms (min-archist, anarcho-capitalist, etc.) when describing themselves and so there are shades of respectful disagreement of opinion among libertarians (as with any human group) to the degree of which government should be permitted to exercise force; but make no mistake, there are no libertarians that would advocate complete anarchy, as that would by definition imply a lawless, consequence free society in which natural rights were ignored.

Where do Democrats and Republicans fall? Well, I have oversimplified things a bit. There is not a single scale by which to measure a society. Rather, there is a single scale (ruler) that you apply to multiple societal issues: work, welfare, abortion, marriage, drugs, schools, etc. A society’s degree of freedom can then be measured roughly by taking the value of all sliders in aggregate. On some issues Democrats are to the left (marriage) and on some to the right (welfare), whereas Republicans are on the left (welfare) and on some to the right (marriage). But both are to the right when it comes to Big Government, because Big Government allows “…the majority to embody their opinions in law.” * But, whenever their goals are in conflict they feign revulsion over “big government” and talk of limiting it. Of course this is only a tactic to limit their opponent’s ability to implement something they don’t agree with.

Since Libertarians never advocate state control (except when protecting natural rights), you will always find them on the left side of the slide rule for any given issue.

* Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Lochner v New York, 1905.

Sweden, Sweden, Sweden…

Recently my wife and I became embroiled in a “Facebook” debate with some of her liberal friends. I won’t bore you with the details as you can probably guess where they stood and where we stood! We were disappointed to learn, however, that when arguing with (some) liberals (many responded to the thread) if they can’t offer a counter argument they simply resort to (a) name calling or (b) answering questions with non-sequiturs or (c) invoking “Sweden”. Well, I probably can’t convince them to dispense with a & b, but at least I can poke some big holes in the Sweden myth.

The Swedish “social utopia” myth is basically a conflation of two independent phenomena (high growth and high taxes) and confusing that conflation as causation rather than correlation. High taxes (the cart) do not push the horse (high growth), rather the converse. In other words: a leaking boat takes time to sink, the length of time depends on the size of the boat and the leak, but eventually, if nothing is done, that boat will sink. Sweden did well in the beginning because it was a big boat with a small leak.

Sweden built up a strong capital base starting in the 1860s after several free-market reforms transformed it into an industrial powerhouse. It also has been aided by the fact that they stayed out of both World Wars and thus avoided the catastrophic destruction of their economy that the rest of Europe endured. In 1932 the “Social Democrats” came to power and began implementing new “social” programs. These programs did not kick in fully until about 1950 at which point they had one of the highest per-capita income growth rates in the world. From 1932 to 1976 government spending grew from 10% of GDP to over 50%. Then the economy began to strain under the enormous tax burden. For about the next 20 years the government thrashed around trying to figure how to solve the stagnating economy. Eventually lowered tax rates and a number of free market reforms were implemented which resulted in an economic rebound in the last 10 years. Another myth is the low unemployment figures, but as they say there are lies, damn lies and statistics. In this case Sweden’s unemployment figures are manipulated by classifying people as “employed” who are on long-term sick leave, paid not to work or people pushed into early retirement. The real rate is closer to 25% without all the statistical sleight of hand.

The Sweden myth is the classic Bastiat example of “the seen and unseen” effects of an economic policy. We “see” the wonderful utopia of universal “free” goodies for all, but we don’t see the “unseen”: the consumption and destruction of previously saved capital (1860-1950) not being replaced at an equal rate. This net consumption breeds a society of dependency. The Swedes are slowly squandering their inheritance, as are we (ours, not theirs!). But being human (“kick the can down the road”) we most likely won’t figure this out until we are at the brink of destruction. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

Money doesn’t matter

Can one make too much money? Are the poor getting poorer? Will the rich amass so much wealth that it will leave none for the rest of us? No. Unfortunately affirmative responses are all too common and simply betray an ignorance of basic economics.

The mantra “the poor are getting poorer…” is a statistical sleight of hand reinforced by the notion that the economy is like a pie. The slice that the bottom 20% held in 2007 was indeed 0.3% smaller than it was in 1947. But the pie has nearly tripled in size and thus nominal (inflation adjusted) income has more than doubled. In terms of standard of living the poor are even better off. We include in the definition of “poor” even those suffering from a mere dearth of the latest goods. But such a metric is misleading. In terms of creature comforts the “poor” are better off today vs just 50 years ago (e.g. ubiquitous home air-conditioning, inexpensive TV’s, game systems, iPods, smartphones, etc). Compared to even the wealthy of a hundred or two hundred years ago the poor are living like kings – indoor plumbing, refrigeration, plentiful food, washing machines, cars, telephones, and the list goes on. Measured on an absolute rather than relative scale the “poor” in most countries are better off today than in any time in history.

Now, to the first and last point – aren’t some taking “too much” of even this bigger pie? If a few get “all” the money won’t that make everyone else “poor”? To answer this, let’s assume the most extreme case: one wealthy person amasses 99% of all the money in the economy. Surely this is a terribly “unfair” scenario that must be prevented, right? Wrong. Why? How can anything get done with so little money? Easily (in a non-government manipulated economy). In this scenario money would be in HIGH DEMAND. Demand is proportional to price, thus “money” would have a HIGH PRICE. Price is the cost of one good in terms of another good. A unit of money will cost more goods than it used to. So if $1 cost a dozen eggs then now it will cost more eggs, lets say 120. So we go from $1/12 = 8¢/egg to $1/120 = 0.8¢. What has happened? Because dollars are in high DEMAND the PRICE of dollars in terms of other goods has gone UP, whereas the price of other goods in terms of dollars has gone DOWN. This is monetary price deflation and contrary to what the Fed might have you believe it is a good and natural thing. The rest of the people in the economy can go about their business producing and exchanging as they were before simply using pennies in place of dollars. It is production of goods & services that produces wealth, not money. The amount of money in an economy does not matter and has no effect on the productivity of that economy. As long as people continue producing, they can never be “poor” no matter how much the “rich” have.

Pet Peeve Regulations

It was recently reported  that the Morgan County BOC  is seeking to enact an ordinance that would regulate garage sales. This proposed ordinance is absurd. The reasons for it are so ludicrous I thought perhaps the article was a satire. It was reported that a mere 12 complaints (0.06% of the county population) a year about garage sale signs in part prompted this proposal. The next issue was that “unregulated outdoor sales annoy citizens.” So, I suppose regulated outdoor sales would not annoy them? The bar is awfully low if mere annoyance is sufficient to prompt regulation. Another cited issue is “traffic congestion.” The most “traffic congestion” I’ve ever seen is through downtown Madison around 5 pm… where it might take an extra 2-3 minutes to get through town. Even this “congestion” is not worthy of regulation.  The final reason is an embodiment of ambiguity:  “disrupt the local residential environment.” A statement so broad that it can apply to virtually any “annoyance” is the regulator’s best friend.

So, I suppose regulated outdoor sales would not annoy them?
In order to qualify for the “privilege-that-used-to-be-a-right” of having a garage sale one would seek permission of a bureaucrat who could arbitrarily deny a request based on the most nebulous of reasons – i.e. “would not be in the interest of the public health, safety and welfare.”  Since that phrase can be interpreted to apply to any denial then decisions are based merely on subjective whims. Furthermore the ordinance would micromanage the sale itself, as it would “deal with how items can be displayed and the sizes and number of signs”. So, is the cash strapped county now going to pay people to go out and inspect garage sales to ensure they are in compliance? We certainly wouldn’t want items displayed incorrectly!


What’s next? Will the county require sellers to warranty goods for a certain period of time? Would they regulate the maximum price of an item? If this ordinance is enacted then it will become that much easier to justify new regulations by using this regulation as a precedent. Perhaps birthday parties should be regulated as well? Perhaps any kind of gathering at one’s residence should be regulated? Nearly all the issues cited in support of this ordinance also apply to such gatherings, why not regulate them too? This is a classic slippery slope. The goal of regulations should be the protection, not violation, of natural rights. This regulation violates the property rights of the seller by limiting their ability to sell their own property. If a seller does happen to violate the rights of others in their sale then they should likewise be cited under EXISTING laws. There is no need for a new patchwork of “pet peeve” regulations.