Abuse of Privilege

| categories: politics | View Comments

I did a tour as a Capital-R Republican in high school. Combative as I was and still am, I've heard just about every line of argument and reasoning one would expect to be slung at a Capital-R Republican, and I feel like I developed a pretty decent command of the vocabulary. So while I'm sure the term must be older than it seems, it feels like "privilege" has recently been elevated in the popular lexicon. I feel like I first heard it only a few years ago, and now it's nearly a third of the words on my Facebook wall. As a visual aid, here's the always-excellent Bob Chipman bringing it out against South Park.

I'll grant it's taken some of the venom out of the rhetoric. It used to be you could ask someone what they had against rich/white/male/cis/straight people and, if you caught a person with weak resolve in a sufficiently agitated state, they'd probably mix enough frustration in with their response to commit some moderate-to-serious ad hominem. Point to the bitter crazy person, offer calm snark, argument over. With most of the U.S. population in a perpetual state of "weak and sufficiently agitated," progressive rhetoric was pretty sorely lacking in vessels capable of conveying the progressive gospel without being tripped into a conniption fit.

Privilege seems to emerge as a kind of stand-in answer to these usually-inflammatory questions. It is in short a statement of exactly what's wrong with all those demographics, constructed in a way that's neutral and blameless: you can't help that you have privilege, but you should acknowledge it and let that knowledge influence your opinions. What privilege constitutes, how it should influence your opinions, etc. tends to mutate, and we'll get to that in a moment, but the fact that it packages a (usually) non-attacking argument for a rhetorical situation many have trouble navigating is what gives it its value.

Of course there's a couple of problems with packaging arguments in single words: you can use them without understanding them, and you can use them without making your opponents understand. Preventing privilege from turning in to a rhetorical pleestop is exactly the sort of task that broad, decentralized political movements are bad at. People generally aren't much interested in correcting people on their own side for bad rhetorical form, and deciding who is and is not proxy to the central authority on a given ideology is a hard problem for both the speakers and the audience. Meanwhile the listener isn't necessarily much educated by the assertion. If he hears "privilege" and understands "shut up and take it because you're white," who's to tell him he's wrong? Our naive progressive is the one that should be making him understand what privilege means, but they dropped the mic and went on to their adoring fans. Is this a "just fucking Google it" moment? Is there no fallacy in "go figure out why you're wrong?" I'd say as-is, our naive progressive is as guilty as if they had said exactly what our listener understood, but then I have these radical, new-fangled ideas about words meaning nothing beyond what they successfully communicate.

But I don't think privilege's weakness stops here. The bigger problem is that, while neatly packaged, the evidence and context don't come in the box, and often even when expanded privilege ends up constituting a weaker argument. People don't just fail to understand or explain privilege, they fail to explain how and why it applies. Let's go down a few examples of how privilege is used in arguments, and see if, as I suspect, the arguments can be made stronger by doing without privilege as a concept.

Privilege as lack of empathy

This is the weakest use of privilege, and also the one most distant from what I would assume was its original intended meaning. Here the word privilege basically condenses the traditional "bleeding heart" argument. It cites the opponent's failure to "walk a mile in another's shoes."

Argumentum ad misercordiam has been wrong for long enough to have a Latin name. As I've discussed before it's probably also worth noting that the opposite premise is built into our legal system. More empathetic does not equate to more correct. I can be quivering in mortification at the plight of the starving, but it doesn't make spending two thirds of GDP to buy the lot of them a can of soup to share between them a good idea. We don't need to go much further with this one, but it is related to another, stronger form.

Privilege as isolation

This use of privilege asserts that we don't know the hardships of the oppressed class, in the literal sense. It's a subtle distinction, and it's often quickly corrupted into the previous form (you don't know, and you can't "really know") but the subtle difference is enough to render it technically valid. In its highest form, it's essentially another statement of the fallacy of anecdote: use of a single instance (in this case your own privileged experience) where a broader representative sample is required.

So why not just call it that?

The irony here is that this use of privilege becomes more bitter and nonobjective precisely because it points to a real problem. You're pointing out a common fallacy, emphasizing a mistake people make all the time, and you're choosing an inherently class-loaded way of doing it. Why not just point out the rhetorical flaw and leave out the feather-rustling categorization of your opponent? Argument from anecdote doesn't need a new name, let alone a demographically targeted one.

Privilege as a correction of rule utilitarianism

Ah, now we're really getting somewhere. This is the most structurally sound meaning of privilege: the rules governing moral behavior are violated in ways that disproportionately affect the happiness of certain groups, therefore adding corrective rules that disproportionately affect those groups yields a practical benefit to net happiness. Put another way: the rules shouldn't apply the same way to everyone because the rule-breakers don't hurt everyone to the same degree.

It's an intriguing point. The problem is it's rarely backed up. I heard a proponent of affirmative action respond to the idea that anyone found the policies unjust with simply "remember your privilege!" No further discussion. But privilege in this form doesn't necessarily justify affirmative action. What degree of alteration is appropriate given the degree of oppression the groups in question are experiencing? Is the policy self-scaling so it fades naturally with the oppression it combats, or are we trusting lawmakers to make continuous adjustments? How are you measuring the net happiness gain versus the happiness lost to injustice? Is there a more efficient way? Did you even ask the economics department to look over your notes?

Without all of these questions answered, and answered very carefully, it's not entirely reasonable to expect people to allow adjustments to their rights. In stead we see appeals to the previous forms. Privilege is something you should feel guilty about. You should be thrilled at the opportunity to atone! Now stop asking all these silly questions. But rigor doesn't step out of the way of anything, even good intentions.

Privilege as "shut up and take it"

I was out drinking one night in the company of someone I'd known for quite some time. He was a homosexual, which I knew and which we had discussed before. He certainly new I was not. There was never the slightest bit of tension between us in that regard, but for whatever reason he decided to come on to me that night, with a level of inappropriateness that included putting his hands on me.

So I remembered my privilege.

It must be my homophobia that's making me uncomfortable I thought. This felt like a violation of my rights, but... no... that happens to women and minorities and others at the hands of privileged power-holding people like me. Surely I couldn't be the victim here.

So I sat in stunned silence until something, my own tortured body language or the bartender's growing discomfort, convinced him to lay off.

This is the damage that haphazard application of privilege does. It's a cry to suspend the conventional notion of rights wherever progressives find it complicates their argument, and the internalization of that idea is poisonous. It may be useful when applied by people with strong arguments, but for now I'm convinced that the academics that coined the term need to revoke the general public's "privilege" privileges.

Read and Post Comments

I Don't Care... and That's What Sets Me Apart!

| categories: politics | View Comments

The title today is a line from Jim Carey, given during an interview. He was reacting to his stated lack of interest in politics, and the kind of political candidate it might make him.

Of course nowadays Jim does care, and about some regrettably stupid bullshit at that. But the funny part about his quip is that, if that quote was all I had to go on for a politician, I'd be intrigued at least. Maybe even excited.

It's a meme that's been in and out of my life forever. From pro-choice hawks yelling that one can't understand abortion until one has held the hand of a scared girl at planned parenthood, or had a uterus of ones own, to the more topical example of a girl telling me that because she was Arab and female and a past victim of discrimination, that she really understood the Trayvon Martin case, and thus her opinion on it was more valid. She cared about discrimination more than a privileged white male like myself could, and thus her thinking on the case was more correct. Another person chimed in and suggested that one might think of the case differently if Trayvon had been a personal friend.

I've never really understood how that worked.

When did caring become an intellectual asset? Caring means wanting your team to win, not the best team. It means being wrong becomes painful and difficult to face, rather than merely part of the intellectual process. Caring inflates the raw mathematical atoms of "correct" and "incorrect" into the ostentatious mythical concepts of "right" and "wrong." Caring forms principles that resist facts. Caring makes us love ideas enough to see past their faults. Caring is wholly dysfunctional.

Politics and the media are all about caring. As Joseph Stalin famously put it, "When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it's statistics." Trayvon and institutional racism are largely demonstrating Stalin's point; even if Zimmerman had come out screaming the N-word and waving a confederate flag, the trial would prove nothing about institutional racism. One guy, one jury, one trial, one time. One point is not a line. One hate crime going unpunished is not a system of racism. What Trayvon is, is a "poster child," an excuse to care, because we don't have faith enough in empiricism, and need to care in order to act. The statistics and sociological studies to measure insititutional racism in the court system should have been done ages ago, but that would only allow us to know of institutional racism. We need to care. Trayvon lets us care in a way that the millions of gun deaths that happen every year, and the many racially divided trials resulting, do not.

It seems like there was a time when this idea wasn't radical. "Dispassionate" has been a positive adjective in recent memory. "Objective" has too, but its use is often loaded so I tend to have a distaste for it. Juries still exclude family members and people who know the victim or defendant, which everyone seems more or less OK with. So what happend? Tell me, internet, why do you care?

Read and Post Comments

The Future of Information Exchange

| categories: politics, free software, tech | View Comments

I've been dead for a bit. Mostly because I've been working on a little something that I should be able to announce on this blog soon (something much more on-topic for all of you planet readers). But, business first: my last two posts were on piracy, and I think I need one more to leave things neat and tidy before we can all move on for a bit.

In my last post I discussed how piracy can be treated as an "externality," a situation where a transaction that is beneficial to both direct parties harms a third party. I then asked if we were defining externality too broadly to be useful, given that value and harm are subjective. I'll rework an example I used there: if a person finds their house less valuable due to a black neighbor moving in, does that neighbor's purchase of the house next door contain an uncompensated externality?

I put this to my private economist, and he cringed a bit, then answered with a simple "yes." Perceived value is, as usual, the only value, and if racism makes you perceive value differently, non-whites moving in next door does have an externality.

The conclusion we came to was that society isn't necessarily obligated to correct all externalities, and morality may be one reason it chooses not to. We could think of it as a sort of punishment for racism; suffering the externality is merely the wages of being racist.

This gets interesting when we bring it back to our piracy discussion, though. Society has a choice in whether it compensates an externality. That choice may be a moral choice, but really the choice could be made for any other reason as well. Remember, it is this same society that outlines property rights to begin with, and for many information freedom advocates, intellectual property is even more artificial.

So we come full circle: we want to establish a system that is both just and efficient, and we can set up any set of rules we like. IP law as is attempts to apply markets to the problem, which are just where certain common and presumably attainable conditions are met, and which are preceded by a reputation for efficiency. IP law remains a good solution unless:

  • The conditions that establish justice don't work for information goods. This is more or less what Stallman is on about; he basically asserts that closing the externality of piracy is unjust toward the user (and his requirements for accessible source code go further than that).
  • We can't effectively set up markets for information goods.
  • The efficiency markets create can't be created for information goods.
  • There is another system which is better when measured in terms of efficiency and justice.

There's probably more ways to approach the first point than swallowing the entirety of FSF ideology whole, but we'll call Stallman good enough for now.

The second point is interesting. It gets back to the old excludability/rivalrousness debate around intellectual property. When presented with the remark that "information is non-excludable and non-rival, and therefore the market should push its price to zero," most economists will retort that IP law creates that excludability, which is largely its purpose. This is true, but at what cost? Information is excludable under IP law. Also, alcohol was unavailable within US borders from 1920-1933. Draw whatever other comparisons you want, but there's precedent in history of "enforceability" dictating the justice of the government's actions. In the case of prohibition, legal signaling never quite produced a popular moral sense that drinking was "wrong." Eventually the government relented.

The third point is even more exciting. It's hard to say how much could be done with more conservative IP law reforms, but right now, IP, and patents in particular, are absolutely disastrous in terms of efficiency. We can pretty much just say "patent trolls" and end this here, but this argument can actually go further. Surprisingly far, even. Look at this and then look at this. Each of these games features similar play style, probably similar weapons, environments, even roughly similar voice acting. Every year the respective owners of each franchise spend millions to update each game, without any cost-sharing, despite immense amounts of reusable work between them. Market IP law means two people make a new 3D mesh of the same M16 each year. It's a sharp highlight on the reality that information is more efficiently produced when existing information can be freely reused. It's the power of "collaboration," and you hear about it a lot in the open source world, while in the proprietary world you have two giant companies duplicating eachothers' efforts at great expense.

And all of that leads nicely to point four: is there a better way? I have some ideas, but much as I'd like to end this piracy series, I think that should wait for another post. I've scratched my piracy itch for awhile now though, so I should be able to leave it be for awhile. Exciting news in posts to come!

Read and Post Comments

Piracy and Stealing

| categories: politics, free software, tech | View Comments

Arguing is hard.

Even as the only species we know to have discovered the idea, objective discourse doesn't come naturally to humans. Dispassionate discussion of ideas is thwarted by our internal frustration at every turn. And one of the most frustrating parts of arguing is the meta-debate.

We've all had the meta-debate before. It's a superset of the semantic argument: the fight we must win, not to prove our point, but to even be able to talk about it. The argument over what terms and nomenclature should be used in the discussion inevitably precedes the discussion, and often the discussion itself is postponed indefinitely by it.

"Piracy is stealing" is such a meta-argument. Like most meta-arguments, there is a side which believes it to be the argument itself: those who are vehemently against piracy (and potentially there's good reason for everyone to be against piracy, as I shall explain soon), often proceed as though equating piracy to stealing is making a great moral claim, and will defend it as the central tenant of the morality that justifies their argument.

This isn't actually the case. Neither rape nor murder is, strictly speaking, "stealing," yet both are considered morally wrong. Whether piracy is stealing or not has no bearing on when and whether it is moral. Yet a vocal group of anti-piracy activists are insistent on equating piracy to stealing, primarily due to its moral implications.

And certainly, for the majority, calling piracy stealing simplifies the debate. Piracy is stealing, stealing is wrong, therefore piracy is wrong. This is the crux of the meta-rhetorical strength of calling piracy stealing: you can stop the conversation there. You don't have to explain why piracy is wrong if piracy is stealing, because "as we all know," stealing is wrong. Jim Sterling was the first such commentator I heard admit it; that the real motivation in calling piracy stealing was to make pirates "feel" wrong about what they were doing:

We recognize that what they do actually is theft, for no reason other than they don't deserve the dignity of having it called anything else.

Ah, one of those joyous statements that simultaneously shows off the speaker's astuteness, and their political sliminess.

The position is both wrong and poisonous: its real tendency is to shut down argument, not win it, thus exempting anti-piracy rhetoric from intellectual review. It tends toward marketing rather than vetting the stance against piracy. It's the Michael Moore methodology: lying because telling the truth requires placing a bet on your audience's intelligence that you aren't willing to take.

But, I am falling in to the same trap myself. Is piracy stealing? The emotionally uninvested seem to be satisfied that the answer is "no" when presented with the simplest argument: theft deprives the owner of an object, piracy doesn't. It's an old refrain, and it's won all the converts it's going to win. There's really no sense in repeating it anymore.

But, we can go deeper. There are more powerful economic tools with which to discuss piracy, and we can apply them. Furthermore, we can apply them without having to make an argument against piracy. I will do so now, proceeding on the assumption that "intellectual property" is as valid a kind of property as any other, and the property rights thereto deserve just as much respect.

We can build an accurate picture of piracy around the concept of euvoluntary exchange. Euvoluntary exchange, which I may have mentioned in passing before, roughly etymologically translates to "truly voluntary exchange," which is an exchange in which absolutely every party concerned is a truly voluntary participant. While I won't go too far into the ideas around euvoluntary exchange (go ahead and click the link if you like), the theory that generally accompanies it is that euvoluntary exchange is always just. I'll leave proving that to the professionals (again, go ahead and click the link).

The criteria for proving an exchange is euvoluntary is simple (taken from the link above):

  1. Conventional ownership.
  2. Conventional capacity to buy/sell.
  3. Absence of regret.
  4. No uncompensated externalities.
  5. Neither party coerced by human agency.
  6. Neither party coerced by circumstance; the disparity in BATNAs is not "too large"

One and two are fairly intuitive. Three is a bit strange: we're using the decision-theory definition of regret, which is more precise than the intuitive one, and generally means that the thing we got wasn't as good as we had assumed when we made our decision. Four is going to be important, and means that if anyone other than the two people engaging in the exchange was somehow made worse off by it, they must be compensated (this is why slave trading is not euvoluntary; the slave doesn't really get much out of it). Five is obvious again; it's only euvoluntary if nobody held anyone at gunpoint. Six is probably the most complicated to explain, but we won't have much need of it here, so I'll simply leave it off.1

If euvoluntary exchange is always just, then for piracy to be wrong it has to break one of the rules above. However, for piracy to be stealing, it has to break the same rule that stealing breaks, in the same way. This is where the argument that piracy is stealing breaks down, because, as I will show, stealing is a coerced transaction and piracy is a transaction with an uncompensated externality. It's a rule five violation versus a rule four violation.

Stealing as a coercive transaction is simplest seen in a gunpoint robbery: you're being forced to "sell" your goods for no compensation. It's a bit fuzzier if we look at a cat burglar or pickpocket, who simply takes your possessions while you're unaware or sleeping, but we can stretch our definition of coercion to cover these without stretching it too far: you're being deprived of your right to evaluate the transaction and make a personal decision. If we take the middle case of a person drugging you, and then politely asking for you wallet, the connection is perhaps more intuitive. We could also establish coercion as "the opposite of consent," and borrow our definition from sexual assault law: you can't consent while drunk, you can't consent while asleep, and you can't consent while unaware of the other person's presence. You are coerced in all of these cases.

Piracy is, of course, more fickle to pin down. Let's analyze each stage of the transaction. We'll use the case of a physical DVD (season three of Teletubbies perhaps) as our example. Finding any oddities that emerge when we apply our model to pure digital distribution can be left as an exercise for the reader.

First, the purchase. We enter our local gadget warehouse, and, drawn to the peculiar foam-rubber gravitas of Tinkiewinkie &co, we purchase and take home our copy of Teletubbies Season Three. It's the most typical economic transaction in our whole scenario, and yet thanks to the mess that is IP debate, we're already in some euvoluntary trouble.

The question that arises is this: do we own the DVD? Some people on the freedom of information side of the argument have argued no; since we are unable to make copies or use the DVD as we see fit, we don't actually have conventional ownership of the DVD. This seems to violate rule two, since the store was not really able to "sell" us the DVD, in that they could not actually establish our ownership of it.

This is a bit of a mess, and fortunately it's specious. Restrictions on use of objects hasn't historically been considered to compromise our ownership of them. Outlawing murder doesn't lessen your ownership of a gun, or a knife. Noise ordinances don't lessen your ownership of your stereo or ridiculous car. Ownership and freedom of use are separate concerns. It's possible that we'd want to re-evaluate this in the light of specific extensions of copyright law, but we're interested in the general case today, and at any rate I don't foresee a lack of conventional ownership or capacity to buy and sell as frequently being the simplest way to discuss a clash between IP and euvoluntary justice, even if it does become applicable.

Now let's move to phase two of our transaction: for presumably archival purposes, you burn a copy of your Teletubbies DVD. While it may have changed, U.S. IP law did at one time recognize your right to make your own copies. Euvoluntary exchange isn't going to easily talk about this action anyway (nothing is exchanged, euvoluntarily or otherwise), so I think we can safely call this fair.

Finally, the act itself: you give one of the DVDs to your friend, the weary parent of a wayward toddler who's young life is crying out for some fluffy, primary-colored guidance. Let's run down the list:

  • We established at the original sale that you now have conventional ownership of the original DVD. Giving either one to your friend constitutes piracy, so we can assume you give her the original, which we've already established you own.
  • We get sticky with two again, since it's arguable that the effect of IP law is to interfere with your capacity to sell. However, we're interested here in the moral structure implied by IP law, not the law itself, so we'll allow that you're as able to "sell" the DVD as anyone.
  • Rule three is easy: you don't regret anything because you still have a copy of the DVD. Your friend doesn't regret anything because nobody regrets bringing the Teletubbies into their life.
  • Let's skip rule four for a second.
  • Rule five seems to check out. You willingly gave the DVD to a willing recipient.
  • Since I haven't defined it, I'll ask you to trust me that rule six is probably not violated in the general case.

So the exchange is very nearly euvoluntary. Moreover it is not coercive, and thus not stealing.

But, we left out rule four, for a very good reason. The argument against piracy states that by making this exchange, you deprive the original creator of potential money. The two participants are both happy and justly served, but a third party is worse off. That, if we believe it, is an uncompensated externality.

Intellectual property, which I stated before I will treat as a valid form of property for this exercise, is not stolen by piracy. It is only damaged by it. The value of intellectual property is tied to the value of selling copies, and that value goes down when you soak up the market with pirated copies. I've likened piracy to vandalism rather than stealing before, in an effort to placate some opponents. It hasn't taken, and in our new euvoluntary model I'm not sure if it's as powerful as it seemed, but it's certainly a better fit than theft.

And so we finally arrive at the real stickiness of the IP debate. The trouble for us now is that we haven't sufficiently defined externalities, and thus a clever person might make them appear everywhere. If a racist couple lives in a suburb, and a black man buys a house next to them, does his transaction with the realtor contain an uncompensated externality? If a new business opens up and competes with other similar services in the area, do all of that businesses transactions produce uncompensated externalites by reducing the market share of the incumbents? Silliness to be sure, and also possibly my fault, since I haven't even begun to dig in to prior work in defining what externalities are admissible under what circumstances. Will a firmer model of externalities squash all subjectivity, or will the debate rage on? And if our understanding of externality does become complete, will it vet IP law or crush it?

We seem to have just now truly begun to think about piracy, and we are able to do so only by discarding a three-word argument that was designed to end the discussion entirely. This is the frustration of meta-debate: we have to defeat our opponents just to get them to begin the actual conversation with us.


  1. We could technically just use the economic definition of "voluntary exchange," which leaves off item six. I stick with euvoluntary because voluntary exchange doesn't line up with our colloquial understanding of the word "voluntary," which tends to include only item five and nothing else (for example, "voluntary manslaughter" isn't voluntary in an economic sense). With euvoluntary exchange, you get one new word and one new concept, and there's less internal confusion. 

Read and Post Comments

I am a Libertarian Capitalist and I Support Free Software

| categories: politics, free software, tech | View Comments

I came across this post on my friend Adam Williamson's blog today, advising me to read this, now. I attempted to take the advice in his title, but seeing as it's a workday, and the article he's linking is quite long, I didn't make it all the way through. Nonetheless I saw enough that I wanted to respond.

First of all, I am only peripherially aware of O'Reilly as a person. Beyond "that guy who publishes the books with the animals on them" I've never had much need for him. My complaint here is more with the tone and ideology expressed in the article Adam linked.

Second of all, the author throws around "Randian" a lot, and then interchanges "Libertarian" with it freely. As one of the many Libertarians who is Sick to Fucking Death of being compared with a certain mysoginist, egomaniacal sociopath, this was the first thing that got to me. I haven't even read Atlas Shrugged. I know I will have to soon to sustain rhetorical credibility with certain among my peers, and I dread it. The inevitable 1% are an acceptable side effect of putting the individual first and optimizing the market for wealth creation rather than wealth distribution. They are not a celebrated class of intellectual elites that are more in touch with some "objective" reality. There's a reason Baudrillard is on my night stand right now and not Rand. That's how "objectivist" I am.

Secondly, and this is more important: I consider Free Software to be a capitalist pursuit. I don't say Open Source, and I do so in adherence to the distinction the author draws between the terms. My support of Free Software is moral, it is about the rights of individuals, and it is fundimentally Libertarian.

To see why, let's bring out the old economic conservative whipping boy, U.S. farm subsidies. The U.S. has a whole slew of laws designed, supposedly, to ease the hardships of farmers. Economic conservatives like to beat up on these laws because, goals notwithstanding, they are unusually psychotic. The most famous element of the bills is a market-manipulation tactic wherein the government manufactures scarcity by "paying farmers not to grow crops." As far as I understand, this is literally true: the government pays certain farmers to stay out of the market to keep prices high for certain foods. I won't fact check it today (we're not actually here to talk about corn production), but the reaction the statement gets is important. There's very few people anywhere in the political spectrum who aren't somewhat taken aback. The power of this story as ammunition for economic conservatism comes from the fact that, true or not, it is unanimously considered a ludicrous state of affairs.

And copyright law is exactly the same.

Speaking purely econimically, incentive is incentive. The moral implications of "do this and I'll give you $30" versus "do this or I'll throw you in jail" are certainly relevant, but in terms of how they are expected to affect consumer behavior, they're more or less the same. The latter is less ethical but is a tool for the same applications, which makes copyright law a less ethical version of farm subsidies. The literal statement of copyright law is "don't make copies of this or we'll throw you in jail." The objective is the same too: to take other producers (in this case, pirates), out of the market to drive up costs.

Software, and information in general, is what we call a non-excludable, non-rival good. The shorter term is "public good," but we'll stay verbose for the sake of sounding a bit less politically loaded. Lack of excludability is a bit subjective: it means, in this context, that piracy cannot be stopped. Certainly there are those that would try, but the massive amount of online piracy certainly suggests that this is at least approximately true for a common parameter space. Non-rivalrousness is less disputable: it means that one person consuming software, or music, or a game, or what have you does not reduce the amount available to the whole: that providing a piece of software to twenty people costs the same amount of resources as providing it to two hundred.

Idealized models of capitalism predict that the price of a good should approach its marginal cost, which is to say the price to produce "one more unit" of that particular good. Given piracy, what do we infer is the marginal cost of producing one more copy of a piece of software? What does it take to produce one more copy of Windows if we let the pirates make copies? The answer is nothing. That's why pirates don't charge money, because fundimentally, the market does not want software to be worth any money.

This is where the Libertarian perspective on copyright law comes to a head: copyright law is a subsidy of a good that the internet has rendered unprofitable. The moral end of Free Software is not achieved, as the author of the original article suggests, by making laws, but by abolishing them: all of patent law and almost all of copyright law (we can spare attribution). Sounds nigh-anarchistic enough to fit in with our conception of Libertarians, doesn't it?

There are some questions left to deal with, such as software freedom and cloud services, or attempts to keep source code as a "trade secret" even when there's no legal infrastructure to back you up in case of a leak, but the fundimental notion that Free Software isn't a Libertarian cause is entirely unsound.

Read and Post Comments

« Previous Page -- Next Page »