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Thick and Thin Libertarians on IP and Open Source

In Thin Liberalism and the Folly of Burning Bridges, Timothy Lee makes (at least implicitly) several interrelated claims. First, that libertarians tend to oppose net neutrality. Second, that "free software intellectuals like Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen" are anti-IP. Third, that this is compatible with libertarianism. Fourth, that Moglen and Stallman, despite some unfortunate rhetorical excesses, hold views that are not really inimical to the free market. Fifth, that some libertarians, who (properly?) oppose net neutrality, wrongly accuse the anti-IP/free software types as being unlibertarian. Finally, that the reason these libertarians get it wrong is that they have succumbed to thinness.

It seems to me that most of these claims are at least partly incorrect, or confused. Let's take them one at a time.

  1. Libertarians tend to oppose net neutrality. (I'm inferring this position from Lee's post.) Libertarians seem to me to be confused about this area, but the principled ones I am familiar with of course oppose net neutrality. I oppose it. On the other hand, the various forms of state support received by the telecom and other Internet infrastructure corporations should of course be abolished, which might alleviate most of the concerns of (left?) libertarians sympathetic to the aims of the net neutrality crowd. But libertarian position is clearly to oppose any state interference with the market to impose "net neutrality." Service providers should be able to charge whatever they want, in whatever manner or tiers they wish, if the market supports it; at the same time, any state favors, monopolies, protectionist regulations, etc., should of course also be abolished.
  2. Free software intellectuals like Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen are anti-IP. (I'm inferring this position from Lee's post.) Not really. The problem, from the libertarian perspective is not that Moglen and Stallman are anti-IP; it's that they are not anti-IP enough. If I am not mistaken, Moglen, for example, is not completely opposed to copyright and patent. (See my Eben Moglen and Leftist Opposition to Intellectual Property.)
  3. The ideas of open source/free software/anti-IP are compatible with libertarianism. Yes, this is true, as I have argued extensively. But this is a strange argument coming from Lee, who himself is not opposed to IP in any principled way (and neither are the leftist free software types, as noted above). For example, as I noted in $30 Billion Taxfunded Innovation Contracts: The "Progressive-Libertarian" Solution, Lee has written: "I can't agree with Baker that all copyright and patent monopolies are illegitimate. Copyright and patent protections have existed since the beginning of the republic, and if properly calibrated they can (as the founders put it) promote the progress of science and the useful arts. Like any government intervention in the economy, they need to be carefully constrained. But if they are so limited, they can be a positive force in the American economy." Unlike the views espoused by confused, quasi-economically illiterate leftists and utilitarian, minarchist libertarians, the proper, principled, libertarian position is that patent and copyright are completely and utterly unlibertarian and unjustified.
  4. Moglen and Stallman, despite some unfortunate rhetorical excesses, hold views that are not really inimical to the free market. I tend to agree with Lee that various comments about "a bottom-up, participatory structure to society and culture, rather than a top-down, closed, proprietary structure" and "the democratizing power of digital technology and the Internet," etc., are not anti-libertarian. However, as noted in Eben Moglen and Leftist Opposition to Intellectual Property, Moglen holds clearly unlibertarian views, such as his view that free bandwidth is everyone's "birthright" (as socialist Finland believes, too-it recently enacted legislation making broadband access a legal right); and his opposition to regulating the EM spectrum as a property right (and his confused view that it already is, despite the state's nationalization of the EM spectrum).
  5. Some libertarians, who (properly?) oppose net neutrality, wrongly accuse the anti-IP/free software types as being unlibertarian. This appears to be correct. Some libertarians are pro-IP and thus, mistakenly believing the free software socialists to be opposed to IP, confusingly criticize them on these grounds. In this respect, the confusion on both sides is similar to confusion about IP held by leftists and traditional libertarians: both the left and traditional pro-IP libertarians accept the false assumption that intellectual property is a legitimate type of property right. Libertarians who accept this premise thus favor IP, because they are pro-property; and leftists oppose IP because they are hostile to private property rights and mistakenly believe IP is a type of private property right.
  6. The reason these libertarians get it wrong is that they have succumbed to thinness. So here we have Lee, who is pro-IP, criticizing libertarians for being pro-IP. Leaving this bizarre critique aside, is Lee right that "thinness" is what makes some libertarians too pro-IP? Lee maintains that "A libertarian whose conception of liberty is confined to limited government is going to be left rudderless when confronted with a pro-liberty movement whose concerns are orthogonal to the size of government." I think this is just confused. Thickness is actually problematic since it just muddies the waters, conflating issues pertaining to the permissibility of interpersonal violence with other interpersonal norms and institutions. The thickness theorizers add nothing of substance to our understanding of libertarian principle; instead, they pointlessly link the libertarian opposition to aggression to non-rigorous, malleable leftist gremlins like "hierarchy" and "bossism" and "pushing people around." I am, in some sense, a "thin" libertarian yet oppose IP root and branch, on principled, pro-property, pro-rights, pro-individualist, non-leftist grounds. Thinness is not the cause of confusion about IP. Rather, it is the lack of principle. It is the lack of principle and the adoption of flawed, bankrupt utilitarian ideas which leads libertarians to try to be "moderate", to support some IP, but not too much; and to be minarchist--that is, statist--rather than anarchist.

[Mises blog cross-post; StephanKinsella.com cross-post]


Comments

Mr Kinsella,

Could you please expand a bit more about your position about "Net Neutrality".

1. First I have notice that you are using "network neutrality" instead of "Net Neutrality". I don't know what "Network neutrality" is, but "Net Neutrality" is addressing the one of the core principles of the Internet. The Internet was build with government money (in other words Tax Payers Money) and become popular because there were no restrictions how we are going to use it.

2. "Service providers should be able to charge whatever they want, in whatever manner or tiers they wish, if the market supports it;" Here you are referring to "free market" right? Now current reality is that most people have no choice at all. Most of the people live in place where monopoly or duopoly exists. Not only that, but looks like there is cartel agreement between ISPs not to enter each others market and to charge the same price. (This is true for most of the country with few exceptions.) Should we regulate ISPs until they have monopoly or should we break them to small companies and make them compete? How this could be done?

3. If the Internet was build on principle of net neutrality, no patents, no copyrights and it is so successful, Should we preserve the same principles and if telecommunication companies want to preserve the proprietary control over their networks, should they be allow to deceive their customers that they are providing access to the Internet when if fact they are providing access to proprietary network like AOL in 1990's?

Best regards, SAL-e

Stephen,

Thanks for the thoughtful post. However, I'm confused about why you focus so much on whether I'm for or against "IP" (a phrase I don't care for, but I'll follow your terminology). In fact, I never mention "IP" in my post. And there's no necessary connection between one's views on "IP" and one's views on free software. So I'm puzzled at your general approach of attributing "implicit" views (i.e. views I didn't actually express) to me and then criticizing me for them!

Stephen, I wonder if you don't actually realize how condescending it sounds when you refer to people you disagree with as being "confused" (as you have many times in the past, and nine times just in this post). If you want to insult them, why not stop pussy-footing around and just do it?
Apologies for misspelling your name, BTW - I was looking at the comment above mine.
@Tim: I replied to this comment of yours in the Mises blog post thread.
Could you point to some references or definitions of "thin" libertarian vs. "thick" libertarian? I haven't come across this short-hand before.

Quibbles I have with Libertarianism in general, though most of it sounds really nice in a utopian theory kind of way, are: the general apparent lack of contemplation of natural-forming monopolies, consolidation and price-fixing, separation of "needs" markets like food vs. "wants" markets like media, the needs of children in human development, and the external costs of production like pollution. You can't simply sue over pollution or any "air and water homesteading rights" you don't yet know about, especially if you and all offspring die from the pollution first. Rand-ites in particular seem to forget that children exist, are strongly affected by environment, and are not able to choose their own parentage -- although perhaps that is Social Darwinism creeping into the corners and not true Libertarianism? I also hear too many Libertarians argue for the right to bear arms, and too few want to insure that it's trained local citizens and sane people who bear those arms -- probably due to a fear of being labeled insane, homicidal, or worse "not patriotic enough" themselves. Should private contracts be perfectly enforceable in all cases, sometimes to the extreme of negligence and physical harm going unanswered? A lot of these problems seem to be ignored in favor of property privatization zeal, without contemplating why egalitarian bottom-up Democracy (vs. current/historical elite-down Authoritarianism) is so important to social harm intervention, and even intervention in private disputes. The Judicial branch is still a government branch.

I know not all Libertarians share views or even placement of shades of gray in all these areas, so I wonder if this "thin" vs. "thick" nomenclature can help me suss out any of these differences.

A subtlety in the Libertarian network neutrality/intellectual property debate is the apparent lack of (baseline) ethical standards from some Libertarians. I will have to admit that my anecdotal sampling is rather small. I will also acknowledge that Against Monopoly possess ethical standards, so its off-the-hook.

Specifically, I am referring,(network neutrality debate) to Libertarians (at least some) who like to incessantly howl about the unintended consequences of government regulation. While they are correct, they hypocritically fail to acknowledge or accept responsibility for the negative untended consequences of "true" freedom from government regulation. Basically, "we have the right to do whatever we want with impunity, even if it destroys society".

In terms of the network neutrality debate, the demand is that private industry can manage the internet better than government. Sounds reasonable enough until you dig a bit deeper. The unfettered "freedom" that is being demanded will allow private industry to "inspect" your packets. Essentially the ability to read your mail. Not only that, but based on their ability to read your packets they then assume that they have the right to manipulate your data as they see fit. Want to connect to a competitive ISP, too bad. Oops, we had to delete your Kindle Orwell books, so sorry.

I find it hard to comprehend how some, who call themselves Libertarians, and insist that the government stay our of your life would themselves claim a privilege to interfere with your life. If given the freedom from government regulation, don't use it to impose your own mini-dictatorship.

A subtlety in the Libertarian network neutrality/intellectual property debate is the apparent lack of (baseline) ethical standards from some Libertarians. I will have to admit that my anecdotal sampling is rather small. I will also acknowledge that Against Monopoly possess ethical standards, so its off-the-hook.

Specifically, I am referring,(network neutrality debate) to Libertarians (at least some) who like to incessantly howl about the unintended consequences of government regulation. While they are correct, they hypocritically fail to acknowledge or accept responsibility for the negative untended consequences of "true" freedom from government regulation. Basically, "we have the right to do whatever we want with impunity, even if it destroys society".

In terms of the network neutrality debate, the demand is that private industry can manage the internet better than government. Sounds reasonable enough until you dig a bit deeper. The unfettered "freedom" that is being demanded will allow private industry to "inspect" your packets. Essentially the ability to read your mail. Not only that, but based on their ability to read your packets they then assume that they have the right to manipulate your data as they see fit. Want to connect to a competitive ISP, too bad. Oops, we had to delete your Kindle Orwell books, so sorry.

I find it hard to comprehend how some, who call themselves Libertarians, and insist that the government stay our of your life would themselves claim a privilege to interfere with your life. If given the freedom from government regulation, don't use it to impose your own mini-dictatorship.


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