Joel Poindexter, an economics student and contributor at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute website, posted an article titled, “Set Culture Free.” The article, overall, is well written and informative, but it makes the fatal assumption that intangible things cannot be owned. I will proceed by demonstrating why the standard Austraian view of property and tangibility are indefensible and create a serious contradiction.
Mr. Poindexter asserts,
“Over time, property rights emerged as a way of mitigating conflict over scarce goods. If there is a finite amount of something, say hammers, it’s possible that at some point conflict over the use of a tool may arise. Establishing property rights, and institutions to enforce those rights and arbitrate disputes, tends to reduce this conflict.”
He then buffers this view with the claim endorsed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that in a resource-finite or scarce world, rules must be placed on the use of the resources. I have championed a similar view in my work on Logical Coordination, but the difference amid Hoppe and myself is that I do not exclude rules to only possible worlds that possess the attribute of scarcity. Why? Well, first, my theory of Logical Coordination holds that the necessary conditions of interaction hold in all possible worlds, and that conflicts would arise generally by the fact that there is no such thing as an actual infinite resource given that part of the value of a resource is contingent upon how I evaluate or perceive of the particular resource.
The second problem I have with this idea revolves around the assertion made by Poindexter, “If there are an infinite number of hammers, or a device exists to infinitely reproduce them, then the problem of scarcity disappears, along with the need for property rights…” This creates a problem for both the Austrain Economist, and any libertarian thinker that endorses a similar view. The problem rests in how Mr. Poindexter cements the notion of rights. He wants to hold that if scarcity were removed, then property rights would evaporate. However, a simple example should demonstrate why this is absurd:
Suppose that I have a hammer, and further suppose that there are an infinite number of hammers that are metaphysically similar to my hammer. I use my hammer often, but one day someone takes it from me. I become angry and demand that they return my hammer, but the thief proceeds to instruct me in the obvious fact that there are an infinite number of hammers, and so I should just get a new one.
Interestingly, the thief, too, should have obtained a hammer by the same recommendation. Nonetheless, was I harmed by the thief? Can I even call this “hammer-taker” a thief? No, not by the analysis given by Mr. Poindexter.
This problem grows worse. The reason that I was harmed and that my rights were violated by the ‘hammer-taker’ is derived from the fact that my hammer is a unique hammer. By Liebniz’s law it must be unique. It takes up a certain space that other hammers do not take up, and it has certain properties that are specific only to it. Not only is it unique, but it is a scarce and particular hammer given its uniqueness. There is only one hammer that I may use for any one activity, and from that, I alone determine how that hammer has value; basically, I attach values that extend beyond the material composition and economic value of the hammer.
If this example is just not “hitting-the-spot,” think of any one thing that you have (a luck coin, ball, a pair of old comfy shoes, or even a special tool) that has memories and meaning attached to it merely because you used it or possessed it in relation to some event. If I came up to you and were to smash your special thing, then would you not be angry? Would you not be harmed? You would because property rights are a natural extension of your interacting with reality, an not merely because things exist -property rights exist because you exist!
Robert Nozick provides some valuable insight into this very subject. Nozick says, “because each person possesses an inviolability that all others must respect… Individuals have rights,” he continues, “and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” Basically, rights are not contingent upon external things, they exist because people do. They attach to individuals. Moreover, rights define and explain fundamental principles of action and morality of free agents that interact; for example, John Rawls states that the role of the right of personal property “is to allow a sufficient material basis for a sense of personal independence and self-respect, both of which are essential for the development and exercise of the two moral powers.” So, in a resource-infinite world, I would not be able to, if the Mises followers are correct, possess any type of independence or self-respect given that I could not secure ownership of any particular property available to me; but this is lazy and shallow reasoning. I could only identify and enjoy a limited number of elements of any infinite set give that my capacity to interact with the infinite number of elements is limited by time. The time spent with those elements would logically allow the necessary attachment of memories, preferences, and conditions which would cause me to gain respect and independence; thus, by Rawls, property rights would have to obtain by necessity. Interestingly, the independence and respect gained must then, as per Hoppe, become protected by rules… Which brings us back to the fact that property rights are inherent to conscience creatures.
The next move made by Poindexter is interesting. He attempts to make the case that the removal of property rights would not, all else being equal, harm the incentives that firms have to develop and investigate new methods, systems, and objects that enable them to remain competitive. He uses, for obvious reasons, the music industry as an example. In light of the claim that low CD or album sales are attributed to an augment in piracy, he asserts:
Many critics of digital downloading point to single-song sales as a terrible thing for artists. But this is only a terrible thing if the artist possesses marginal talent. Most people have probably experienced a time when they heard a song they liked on the radio and bought the CD, only to discover that overall it wasn’t that good. Allowing consumers to buy one song at a time provides musicians an incentive to produce not one or two good songs for radio, but an entire record’s worth of quality music.
Right, but what about the disincentives that exist to not invest my time, energies, and money into making a new album or song given that said song/album may be downloaded and distributed to several hundred of thousands of people without them buying it? Would my expected earnings not fall? And if the problem were serious enough, would I not just say “screw it” I am not selling any more albums because the cost exceeds the benefits? It is possible, and even likely that certain people do not (I know of a few, actually) actualize their ideas in the marketplace given that the are afraid of not being able to have the rights to their product, and that others would merely take their idea and profit from it leaving the idea’s create cold and hungry. It is the case that individuals may prevent their ideas from being actualized into material products, and this would cause that the consumer looses both the opportunity to purchase a product and to benefit from the competition amid firms.
Finally, to hold the idea that only tangible things are claimable, demonstrates a failure to connect physical inventions (tangible property) to their idea representations (intangible property). Suppose I spend one million dollars in research and development to create a new oven. This new oven will cook bread, rolls, and pizza in a fraction of the usual time needed. I have struggled and toiled over thermodynamics, the components of certain refectories, and even the aesthetic elements of this oven to the point where I finally create a version that can be brought to market. Nonetheless, once I start to sell, I notice that a large company purchased one of my ovens and is now marketing an exact duplicate at a much lower price. The result is that I made a few dollars, but am not unable to profit (as I would have) from my idea. The fact that I can only lay claim to the physical instances of my oven and not the idea that is “my oven,” essentially requires that I do not have a right to my thoughts and the things developed in my mind. This is a violation of both the Kantian and Lockean tradition of rights and ownership. For Lock, I own the oven because I mix my labor with it, but I can logically extend this analysis to ideas. I own ideas because I mix my labor with them. Additionally, it behooves us to note that good ideas can be treated as commodity such that scarceness does apply.
Moreover, property rights can be said, as we found, to be natural extensions of my consciousness actions -of existence. This extending of rights is made possible only by action, and idea creation is an action; thus, ideas are extensions of my rights and can be placed under conventional and philosophical conceptions of property rights. This is akin to legal agreements and contracts (which we all know Austrians hold as sacrosanct), by the fact that they are rooted in action and delivered by ideas. Not to mention that any philosophy which favors such a cold empiricism, is usually committing a serious oversight to things not perceived by our senses -humm…so much for praxeology, eh?