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Classical Liberals and Anarchists on Intellectual Property

I’ve discussed before the IP stances of various older libertarians, classical liberal, and anarchist thinkers on IP.1 I keep trying to add to this list. I’ll supplement this post from time to time, but here is some of what I’ve collected.2 I’m omitting more recent libertarians such as Rand and Galambos. These are sorted chronologically (by date of birth). Good guys in blue (lighter blue for the ones that are semi-good). Bad in red.

  • David Hume (1711–76): unclear, but seemed to reject aspects of Locke’s labor argument that are now used to justify IP3
  • Adam Smith (1723–1790): apparently in favor, but somewhat cautious and skeptical4
  • Blackstone (1723–1780): apparently opposed to patents5
  • Frédéric Bastiat (1801–50): a friend tells me he is good on patents (against them) but bad on copyright, though I haven’t verified this yet myself6
  • William Leggett (1801–39): very good, for his time, on both patent and copyright7
  • Lysander Spooner (1808–87): horrible on IP, just about the worst, next to Galambos, Rand, and Schulman8
  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65): possibly bad on IP (claim disputed)9
  • JK Ingalls (1816–98): Seems to be almost identical to Tucker: good on IP, but for confused reasons, including hostility to the “land monopoly”10
  • Gustave de Molinari (1819–1912): bad on patent and copyright11
  • Herbert Spencer (1820–1903): horrifically bad on IP12
  • Auberon Herbert (1838–1906): unknown13
  • Henry George (1839–97): bad on copyright14
  • James Walker (Tak Kak) (1845–1904): excellent on both patent and copyright, like Tucker15
  • Eugen Böhm-Bawerk (1851–1914): expresses skepticism about both patent and copyright16
  • Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939): great on IP, but perhaps not completely for the right reasons17
  • Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945): possibly skeptical of patents18
  • H.L. Mencken (1880–1956): unknown
  • Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973): skeptical, but mixed and confused on IP; seem to be somewhat anti-patent but pro-copyright19
  • Frank Knight (1885–1972): skeptical of patents, but perhaps in favor of state funding of R&D20
  • Henry Hazlitt (1984–1993): weak21
  • Arnold Plant (1898–1978): skeptical of empirical case for patents22
  • Lionel Robbins (1898–1984): skeptical of empirical case for patents23
  • Leonard Read (1898–1983): appeared to be skeptical of ownership of ideas in general, i.e. anti-IP24
  • F.A. von Hayek (1899–1992): seemed to be leaning against IP, though not entirely clearly25
  • Fritz Machlup (1902–83): skeptical of the empirical case for patents26
  • Robert LeFevre (1911–86): expresses very good, early skepticism of the notion of IP or ownership of ideas27


Update: More recent thinkers (not a comprehensive list; for more on modern libertarian views on IP see The Four Historical Phases of IP AbolitionismThe Origins of Libertarian IP Abolitionism; see also Pro-IP “Anarchists” and anti-IP Patent Attorneys):

  • Ayn Rand (1905–82): bad (central plot point of The Fountainhead: IP terrorism)
  • F.A. “Baldy” Harper (1905–73): indications are he was or would have been bad on IP; infected by the Lockean “creationism” virus28
  • Milton Friedman (1912–2006): TBD
  • Andrew Joseph Galambos (1924–97): bad (one of the worst, with Spooner a close competitor for this title): total nutjob on IP, utterly in thrall the scientism, the labor theory of property, and non-rigorous, overly metaphorical reasoning
  • Murray N. Rothbard (1926–95): decent on patent; confused on copyright; good on defamation
  • Israel Kirzner (1930–): seems to lean against IP, but not clearly29
  • Jan Narveson (1936–): purportedly anti-IP;30 mostly opposed31
  • Robert Nozick (1938–2002): confused and weakly in favor of some form of patent law; very diletanttish reasoning, as often is the case for Nozick. See here, text at note 5
  • Tibor Machan (1939–2016): confused and bad on IP
  • Richard Epstein (1943–): bad
  • David Friedman (1945–) (bad/confused)32
  • L. Neil Smith (1946–): bad33
  • Sam Konkin (1947–2004): good
  • George Smith (1949–): unknown; probably good
  • Mary Ruwart (1949–): good: indicates here she is generally against IP (previously, position a bit unclear:  here she doesn’t clearly condemn defamation law, which is a type of IP [discussed further at this facebook post])
  • Hans-Hermann Hoppe (1949–): good
  • Wendy McElroy (1951–): good (the first to get it basically right from a libertarian perspective)
  • J. Neil Schulman (1953–): very bad34
  • Tom Palmer (1956–): good (at least originally)
  • Tyler Cowen: bad
  • J.C. (Jan) Lester: confused and bad on IP35
  • Jeffrey Tucker (1963–): good
  • Roderick Long (1964–): good (early radical libertarian opponent of IP)
  • Kinsella (1965–): good
  • Alex Tabarrok (1966–): confused/bad-mixed36
  • Bryan Caplan (1971–): bad
  • Tom Bell: not abolitioist, but skeptical and favors severe rollbacks
  • Mike Masick: not abolitioist, but skeptical and favors severe rollbacks
  • Cory Doctorow: not abolitioist, but skeptical and favors severe rollbacks (I believe)
  • Adam Mossoff: bad
  • Paul Cwik: bad
  • Peter Leeson (1979–): not clear; touches on it briefly in this paper
  • Michael Huemer: confused: doesn’t think it’s clear that IP is unlibertarian37
  • Sharon Presley; and some less-known more modern soi-disant anarchists who are nonetheless confused and bad on IP: Bob Wenzel, for example,38 as well as other lesser/modern figures such as Chris LeRoux,39 Shayne Wissler,40 Silas Barta (aka John Sharp, “Person,” Richard Harding).
  1. See The Four Historical Phases of IP AbolitionismThe Origins of Libertarian IP AbolitionismThe Death Throes of Pro-IP Libertarianism. []
  2. See also my post Pro-IP “Anarchists” and anti-IP Patent Attorneys. []
  3. see Hume on Intellectual Property and the Problematic “Labor” Metaphor  []
  4. From Lectures on Jurisprudence, Part I, Div. III, §8, p. 130: “The privilege, however, of vending a new book or a new machine for fourteen years has not so bad a tendency, it is a proper and adequate reward for merit.” From Wealth of Nations, G.Ed. p. 754: “When a company of merchants undertake, at their own risk andThe grant of a temporary monopoly to a joint-stock company may sometimes be reasonable, but a perpetual monopoly creates an absurd tax expence, to establish a new trade with some remote and barbarous nation, it may not be unreasonable to incorporate them into a joint stock company, and to grant them, in case of their success, a monopoly of the trade for a certain number of years. It is the easiest and most natural way in which the state can recompense them for hazarding a dangerous and expensive experiment, of which the public is afterwards to reap the benefit. A temporary monopoly of this kind may be vindicated upon the same principles upon which a like monopoly of a new machine is granted to its inventor, and that of a new book to its author.” (discussed in Adam Smith and the Role of Government). See also The Economist: “’The granting [of] patents “inflames cupidity”, excites fraud, stimulates men to run after schemes that may enable them to levy a tax on the public, begets disputes and quarrels betwixt inventors, provokes endless lawsuits…The principle of the law from which such consequences flow cannot be just.’ … The Economist may have put it rather strongly in 1851, but its disapproval of patents represented conventional wisdom at the time. A century earlier, Adam Smith had described them as necessary evils, to be handed out sparingly, and many other economists have since echoed his reservations. Patents amount to temporary monopolies on useful new inventions.” See also Tom Bell’s comments showing Smith did not view IP as natural rights. []
  5. See Bob Baxt and Henry Ergas, “Australia” country chapter, in R Ian McEwin, Intellectual Property, Competition Law and Economics in Asia, p. 98 (2011), stating: “Arguments that ‘publicutility requires that production of the mind should be diffused as widely as possible’ [5] were common in the English literary property debate of the eighteenth century; so too was the hostility embodied in Blackstone’s view that ‘mechanical inventions tend to the improvement of arts and manufactures, which employ the bulk of people; therefore they ought to be cheap and numerous’. [6]” citing [5] “The Cases of Appellant and Respondents in the Cause of Literary Property before the House of Lords (1774) 6, cited in B Sherman and L Bently, The Making of Modern Intellectual Property Law (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999) 29.” and [6] “W Blackstone [as Counsel] in Tonson v Collins (1760) 96 ER 189″. See also Ronan Deazley, Commentary on: Tonson v. Collins (1762); and Tonson v. Collins, London (1762). []
  6. see Economic Harmonies, ch. X, and clearer mentions in “Propriété et Spoliation“. Re Bastiat being in favor of indefinite copyright, see “Discours au cercle de la librairie” []
  7.  William Leggett on Intellectual Property  []
  8. Tucker on Spooner’s One Flaw  []
  9.  Proudhon: For Intellectual Monopoly  []
  10. See his Social Wealth [1885], pp. 85–86: “The idea of a natural exclusive right in invention or in the publishing of books is absurd. If there is one, why our patent and copyright laws? Why not defend the right at common law or by general consent? Because a man utters a new word, or coins a new phrase, is that his property which no one may repeat? If we may not be prevented from reiterating it, why from rewriting it or reprinting it? Because a man builds a house to shelter himself and family, shall all mankind be compelled to dwell in caves to the end of time? or pay him and his descendants a royalty or kingly tribute? Doubtless,  society will feel under obligation to one who has invented a useful thing or written an instructive or entertaining book. And the man who has conceived or perfected either of these has the power of property over it, while he keeps it private or secret, and will usually find means to secure an advantage from it before making it public property, as Daguerre did with his beautiful invention. Society, too, may take lawful methods of awarding services of that kind; but to create a monopoly is not one of them. For books and inventions a premium might be allowed for a given time; but not to interfere with the freedom of manufacture and sale by all who would respect the right.” See also Wikipedia: “He was an associate of Benjamin Tucker and the “Boston anarchists.” He believed that government protection of idle land was the foundational source of all limitations on individual liberty.” []
  11.  Molinari on IP  []
  12. See The Principles of Ethics, Vol. 2, Ch. 13, §§ 303–306; also, according to Roderick Long, from Spencer’s Autobiography. See also Spencer’s Social Statics, ch. XI, § 3: “As already remarked, it is a common notion, and one more especially pervading the operative classes, that the exclusive use by its discoverer of any new or improved mode of production, is a species of monopoly, in the sense in which that word is conventionally used. To let a man have the entire benefit accruing from the employment of some more efficient machine, [139] or better process invented by him; and to allow no other person to adopt and apply for his own advantage the same plan, they hold to be an injustice. Nor are there wanting philanthropic and even thinking men, who consider that the valuable ideas originated by individuals—ideas which may be of great national advantage—should be taken out of private hands and thrown open to the public at large. …. —And pray, gentlemen,—an inventor might fairly reply,—why may not I make the same proposal respecting your goods and chattels, your clothing, your houses, your railway shares, and your money in the funds? If you are right in the interpretation you give to the term ‘monopoly,’ I do not see why that term should not be applied to the coats upon your backs and the provisions on your dinner tables.” []
  13. Jeff Tucker assures me that Herbert was good on IP but I can find nothing in The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays [1885] definitive, though he has a bit of pro-IP-ish “libertarian creationism” in his comment “We claim that the individual is not only the one true owner of his faculties, but also of his property, because property is directly or indirectly the product of faculties, is inseparable from faculties, and therefore must rest on the same moral basis, and fall under the same moral law, as faculties. Personal ownership of our own selves and of our own faculties, necessarily includes personal ownership of property. As property is created by faculties, it would be idle, it would be a mere illusion, to speak of an individual as owner of his own faculties, and at same time to withhold from him the fullest and most perfect rights over his property, if such property has been rightfully acquired” [emphasis added] []
  14. Henry George on Intellectual Property and Copyright  []
  15. See William Leggett on Intellectual Property; and Wendy McElroy, For Liberty, Life and Property….But Not The Ownership of Ideas []
  16.  Böhm-Bawerk on Patent and Copyright  []
  17.  Molinari on IP  []
  18. According to a friend, “In his biography of Jefferson, he claims that Jefferson was against patents, and his phrasing makes it appear that he was against them, too. In his narrative about Jefferson’s views, he refers to them as monopolies.” []
  19. Human Action 3rd rev. ed. Chicago: Henry Regnery (1966), chap. 23, section 6, pp. 661–62; see also pp. 128, 364; see also Kinsella, “Mises on Intellectual Property” []
  20. Knight believed the patent system “is an exceedingly crude way of rewarding invention. Not merely do the consumers of the product pay, which is doubtless fair, but large numbers of other persons suffer who are prevented from using the commodity by the artificially high price. And as the thing works out, it is undoubtedly a very rare and exceptional case where the really deserving inventor gets anything like a fair reward. If any one gains, it is some purchaser of the invention or at best an inventor who adds a detail or finishing touch that makes an idea practicable where the real work of pioneering and exploration has been done by others. It would seem to be a matter of political intelligence and administrative capacity to replace artificial monopoly with some direct method of stimulating and rewarding research.” Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, “Part III, Chapter XII: Social Aspects of Uncertainty and Profit,” p. 372 (1921). As noted by Bob Baxt and Henry Ergas, “Australia” country chapter, in R Ian McEwin, Intellectual Property, Competition Law and Economics in Asia, p. 99 & n9 (2011), this was “a view the Nobel laureate in economics, Kenneth Arrow, echoed, some 40 years later, in his classic article on the economics of research and development (R&D). … Although often cited by those who support strong IPRs, suggesting that as with so much economic literature, it is far more often cited than read, Arrow’s main conclusion is that ‘for optimal allocation [of resources] to invention it would be necessary for the government or some other agency not governed by profit-and-loss criteria to finance research and invention.’ K. Arrow, ‘Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources to Invention’ in The Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity: Economic and Social Factors (National Bureau of Economic Research, 1962) 623. []
  21. In Hazlitt’s article “Patents and Monopoly,” New York Times, December 14, 1938 (p. 24; uncredited), he seems slightly skeptical of patents. He acknowledges that the government’s grant of patents helps create the monopolies that the government then complains about. He also wonders if patents have really promoted progress, or whether perhaps their “abuse” has hindered progress. Still, he does not seem to favor abolition or to oppose patents on principle. And in his 1962 National Review review of Rothbard’s MES, he criticizes Rothbard’s “abstract doctrinaire logic” such as his “sharp contrast between copyrights and patents, and his implication that the former might well be granted in perpetuity and the latter not at all”. He is right that Rothbard is wrong to imagine a sharp contrast between patent and copyright, and Hazlitt appears to oppose copyright in perpetuity (but not completely), and to oppose the abolition of patent law. Later he criticizes Rothbard for opposition to libel law (which very similar to IP law, in establishing intangible “reputation rights” [as trademark law also does]), and blackmail law, indicating Hazlitt favored established positive law, both common law (blackmail and libel) and statutory law (e.g. patent law). Hazlitt is very confused here, accusing Rothbard of being “misled by his epistemological doctrine of “extreme apriorism” into trying to substitute his own instant jurisprudence for the common law principles built up through generations of human experience”–since patent and copyright law were not based on gradually developed common law, but rather the result of state interference in human life and the market, and statutes such as the Statute of Anne 1710 [copyright] and the Statute of Monopolies 1623 [patent], and the patent and copyright clause in the US Constitution of 1789 and the patent and copyright statutes enacted immediately after by Congress. []
  22. The Economic Theory Concerning Patents for Inventions,”Economica, New Series, 1, no. 1 (Feb., 1934) []
  23.  Lionel Robbins on the Patent Monopoly  []
  24.  Leonard Read on Copyright and the Role of Ideas  []
  25. see Hayek’s Views on Intellectual Property; also Tucker, “Misesian vs. Marxian vs. IP Views of Innovation“; Tucker, “Hayek on Patents and Copyrights“; Salerno, Hayek Contra Copyright Laws  []
  26. U.S. Senate Subcommittee On Patents, Trademarks & Copyrights, An Economic Review of the Patent System, 85th Cong., 2nd Session, 1958, Study No. 15 (text excerpt) [“Report to the US congress from 1958, which also extensively narrates the history of the patent movement and of earlier economic research on this subject. Machlup, a renowned American economist of Austrian origin, is the first author of a large treatise on knowledge economics and other treatises which belong to the teaching repertoire of economics departments in universities. His report cites a wealth of historical and economic evidence to refute most of the reasoning used by lawyers to legitimate the patent system.”]; Fritz Machlup & Edith Penrose, “The Patent Controversy in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 10 (1950), p. 1 []
  27.  LeFevre on Intellectual Property and the “Ownership of Intangibles”  []
  28. KOL 037 | Locke’s Big Mistake: How the Labor Theory of Property Ruined Political Theory; “The Intellectual Property Quagmire, or, The Perils of Libertarian Creationism” (Powerpoint; PDF version), Austrian Scholars Conference 2008Rothbard Memorial Lecture (audio; video; Google Video version); Locke on IP; Mises, Rothbard, and Rand on Creation, Production, and “Rearranging”; Libertarian Creationism; Rand on IP, Owning “Values”, and “Rearrangement Rights”; Locke, Smith, Marx and the Labor Theory of Value.  []
  29.  see Cordato and Kirzner on Intellectual Property  []
  30. according to Kraft & Hovden; however, a review of The Libertarian Idea reveals nothing of substance about IP []
  31. personal discussions with author []
  32. David Friedman on the “Problem” of Piracy; David Friedman on Copyright; David Friedman: Current Experiments in Self Publishing. []
  33. Replies to Neil Schulman and Neil Smith re IPKinsella v. Schulman on Logorights and IPSchulman: Kinsella is “the foremost enemy of property rights” ; Query for Schulman on Patents and Logorights []
  34. Replies to Neil Schulman and Neil Smith re IPKinsella v. Schulman on Logorights and IPSchulman: Kinsella is “the foremost enemy of property rights” ; Query for Schulman on Patents and Logorights []
  35. See discussion in my post “Aggression” versus “Harm” in Libertarianism []
  36. Tabarrok: Patent Policy on the Back of a Napkin; Tabarrok: Defending Independent Invention; Tabarrok’s Launching the Innovation Renaissance: Statism, not renaissance; Tabarrok on Ideas and Prosperity  []
  37. facebook post []
  38.  KOL 038 | Debate with Robert Wenzel on Intellectual Property  []
  39.  KOL076 | IP Debate with Chris LeRoux ; Can you own ideas? Chris LeRoux debates Daniel Rothschild. []
  40.  “Locke’s Big Mistake: How the Labor Theory of Property Ruined Economics and Political Theory,” Liberty in the Pines Conference (March 2013).  []
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