IP as Puritanism

by Stephan Kinsella on January 29, 2011

Mencken famously defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (This is sometimes more euphoniously worded as “the nagging fear that …” and given many variations such as: “Environmentalism: the nagging fear that someone, somewhere is comfortable” and “Liberalism: The nagging fear that someone, somewhere, can take care of themselves.”)

Over at Daily Kos, a blogger similarly criticizes

a prevailing attitude in America: the overriding fear that someone, somewhere, is getting something that they don’t “deserve.”

This attitude, profoundly anti-Christian, is an historical legacy of our uptight, rigid and punitive Protestant origins.

I was struck by a similar attitude in a recent pro-IP article at National Review Online by Robert Verbruggen, Can We Save the Music Business?, which advocates a method called “graduated response” as a way to combat piracy. In his piece Verbruggen castigates

later turned out that labels were fixing prices. And partly this is rank selfishness, hidden behind modern teenagers’ widespread belief that it’s a basic human right to enjoy art — the fruits of someone else’s labor — without paying for it.

Verbruggen seems to think there is something wrong with enjoying art without paying for it. Sounds a bit like Mencken’s Puritanism, no? As if everyone has not at some point “enjoyed art” (or “the fruits of someone else’s labor”) without paying for it. Every piece of art in the public domain has this status–people can enjoy it without paying for it. Does this mean copyright should last forever so that there is no public domain? This entire mentality–of artificially restricting information–is based on a failure to distinguish between types of things: scarce and nonscarce goods; a failure to appreciate the different roles of scarce resources and information in the structure of human action: humans use scarce means to achieve their ends; information guides their actions: their choice of means, and ends. Because means are scarce they can only be used by one actor; thus we need property rights to permit these means to be used productively by actor-owners. Without property rights in scarce means they simply cannot be peacefully and productively used. But information can be used by any number of actors to guide their own actions, and need not be rationed by property rights in order to permit it to be used successfully by actors. This is why the expansion of the body of human cultural and scientific knowledge is a good thing.1

  1. See Kinsella, “Intellectual Freedom and Learning Versus Patent and Copyright,” idem, “Ideas are Free: The Case Against Intellectual Property: or, How Libertarians Went Wrong,” idem, “Intellectual Property and the Structure of Human Action,” Jeff Tucker & Kinsella “The Death Throes of Pro-IP Libertarianism.” []
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