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Proudhon: For Intellectual Monopoly

Turns out that Proudhon, the socialist mutualist anarchist and critic of capitalism, was in favor of monopoly after all–in particular, patent and copyright. See pp. 8-9 of Machlup & Penrose, “The Patent Controversy in the Nineteenth Century” (1950). Sad.

Update: per the comments below, Shawn Wilbur says Machlup got this wrong: that Proudhon was not in favor of any form of copyright or patent at all, and that Machlup is misconstruing what Proudhon meant by his use of the word “necessity”. Interesting. Wilbur has pointed me to this English translation of the text Machlup was citing. I am taking a look at it and cannot verify Wilbur’s claim, but it does seem credible.

Update: See also quote of Proudhon in Locke on IP; Mises, Rothbard, and Rand on Creation, Production, and “Rearranging”:

The masters of science instruct us all—and the supporters of literary property are the first to argue this—that man does not have the capability of creating a single atom of matter; that all his activity consists of appropriating the forces of nature, of channeling these and modifying their effects, of composing or decomposing substances, of changing their forms, and, by this steering of the natural forces, by this transformation of substances, by this separation of elements, of making nature [la création] more useful, more fertile, more beneficial, more brilliant, more profitable. So that all human production consists (1º) of an expression of ideas; (2º) a displacement of matter.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Shawn P. Wilbur January 27, 2012, 11:06 pm

    Stephan, I’m surprised no one has corrected this claim. If you consult Proudhon’s writings, I think you will find Proudhon quite consistent in his scorn for literary property. “Les Majorats littéraires” was a book-length three-prong attack on any and all justifications. And it was a follow-up to two highly controversial attacks on literary property published by Proudhon while in Belgium. “What is Property?” includes numerous passages which treat literary property as simply another form of “theft.” The section of “The System of Economical Contradictions” that Machlup and Penrose cite barely touches on the rights of inventors. The “necessity” involved is not any specific monopoly, but the inevitability of monopolizing tendencies to oppose competitive ones. I could understand parts of this work being misunderstood out of context, but the sole claim about patents in the section appears to be that “patents pour in, but without the guarantee of the government,” it this is presented as an example of public prudence.

  • Shawn P. Wilbur January 27, 2012, 11:12 pm

    You might also look further on in the “Economical Contradictions,” where patents are listed among the “disastrous and inevitable consequences of taxation.”

    • Stephan Kinsella January 28, 2012, 12:17 am

      Shawn, here is what Machlup and Penrose write, with copious footnotes (though in French, and I have not read them):

      On the other extreme there was in France a large literature urging perpetual rights in intellectual products, assignable and hereditary forever. Against the claims for such majorats in ideas Proudhoun wrote a satiric pamphlet. But he did not object to temporary protection, for he regarded teh striving toward temporary monopolies in industry as the most effective stimulus of progress. Indeed, without the possibility of monopoly, society could not progress. Thus, he found that the grand of temporary monopolies to inventors was a “necessity” in our society.

      Machlup was a careful scholar. Maybe he misread Proudhon; I don’t know. If you are right this is deserving of careful debunking.

  • Shawn P. Wilbur January 28, 2012, 4:33 pm

    There are two footnotes for Proudhon in the Machlup and Penrose article, one simply identifying the “satiric pamphlet,” “Les Majorats Litteraires,” and the other indicating the first seven pages of the section on the “Necessity of Monopoly,” in “The System of Economical Contradictions,” in one of the early phases of Proudhon’s treatment of the “economic evolutions.” (The corresponding pages in the Tucker translation are 273-283.)

    The material cited from the “Contradictions” is very general, and perhaps not Proudhon’s clearest bit of writing. But we know the general shape of the argument, which is progressive: each of the developments that Proudhon discusses (from division of labor through all the steps of its “oscillating march” towards ever more complex forms of relative equilibrium) is the solution to problems inherent in the previous stage. Monopoly becomes “necessary” in the same way that competition was “necessary” in a previous stage of development. And once these general tendencies come on stage, they never really exit: that’s the nature of the complex, irreducible dialectic that Proudhon is building. So if there is a necessity for “temporary protection,” it is of a historical or metaphysical, not an ethical or legal nature. The argument in pages 276-280 ends with the reference to patents without government guarantee, so the nature of the “protection” doesn’t seem to extend very far. On 276, the argument seems to be for compensation for the labor of invention or, in an analogy to homesteading, “possession” of improvements. I would be interested in seeing a stronger reading of “necessity” in those pages, but I’m certainly not seeing it myself.

    Anyone familiar with Proudhon’s writings on property, and his consistent claim that property in land was “theft,” should already be familiar with the section of “What is Property?” on the “third form of society,” where he argues for a progressive historical development from primitive community through property, with the tendency towards some “synthesis,” which he identifies there as “liberty,” which would balance the tendencies of the earlier phases. I don’t see the language of “necessity” there (though I looked very quickly), but in his Second Memoir of Property he very explicitly talks about the “the laws of necessity” and the “natural order” leading the development of human institutions through all sorts of unpleasant stages towards social equilibrium. (Look around 311-312 in the Tucker translation of “What is Property?” for the argument.) It should be fairly clear that the use of the term “necessity” is not necessarily an indication of approval, or that it applies outside of the particular developmental contexts that Proudhon is discussing at a given moment. That indication, taken with the later treatment of monopoly in general and patents in particular, in subsequent sections of the “Contradictions,” will, I think, suggest to most readers that Proudhon was not advocating literary property or patents as necessary to social development beyond those contexts. Given his extensive writing against literary property, the claim that “the grant of temporary monopolies to inventors was a ‘necessity’ in our society,” based on this particular evidence, seems like a fairly enormous stretch. Now, since Proudhon did eventually embrace simple property in land as a kind of consequentialist kludge, despite maintaining his characterization of it as “theft,” a similar adjustment in terms of intellectual property might have been feasible. I haven’t run across any indications of it, but it would certainly have been possible.

    And just so it’s clear that I’m not simply attempting to protect Proudhon from some charge I find horribly objectionable, I have to admit that I wouldn’t personally find a principled support for short-term protections all that damning, in Proudhon’s time or our own. The claim simply doesn’t seem to be supported by the facts.

To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.