Friday, April 12, 2013

On IP: Wenzel vs. Kinsella

I was going to set up this post as a response to a specific comment over at the Economic Policy Journal website, but it seems that said comment has been deleted since I first read it. In any case, I'll go ahead and make this a more general post about the underlying topic of late in libertarian circles - the Wenzel/Kinsella debate on IP (intellectual property). Buckle in, boys and girls.

So, I'm not intimately familiar with whatever contentions lie between Wenzel and Kinsella, but after gruelling through the two and a half-hour slogfest that's been referred to as a "debate", it's safe to say there's some antipathy between these two bloggers. Truth be told, my awareness of Wenzel and his work is mostly accidental. I've perused some of his articles but I've never been particularly impressed with the alarmist demeanor that envelopes his presentation. Likewise, I can't say that I know Kinsella's work inside and out. But I've burned enough time on his articles and talks to have a general sense of where he's coming from. I agree with him at least nine times out of ten in regards to his political conclusions - particularly as it pertains to abstract theories related to property. So I'll have to admit that I rolled into this thing anticipating that I was going to agree with Kinsella in the end.

That being said, some of the fallout from this in the undercurrents of the wider libertarian movement has been sizable enough to garner what might otherwise be unwarranted attention. As expected, it seems that the more traditional Randian-style libertarians are lining up on the side of IP (and subsequently what I would refer to as "the state"...even if they don't see it that way), while most anarcho-libertarians are lining up against IP. Now, I'm still technically pretty new to the movement I think. But even I still recall the time(s) when there was still a lot of wrangling in the latter group over the IP issue. But a couple of prominent thinkers (Kinsella being one) have rapidly advanced the anti-IP banner. There has been a huge paradigm shift because of it - the importance of which, I think, has not been completely grasped yet. I will say that I think the quickness and decisevness of the shift tells me a couple of delightful things. One is that our movement is alive and breathing. We do not appeal to faith or antiquity. It seems that most of us are open to changing our views if we find ourselves in the wrong. Secondly, I believe the eminent totality of the shift in said group shows just how strong and consistent the argument against IP has ultimately been.

Anyways, all of that being said, let's dig into what I believe to be the crux of this particular debate...

If we could distill the differences between the opposing views in this debate down to a word, I believe that word would be "scarcity." "Scarcity" is a term that is used in different ways. Kinsella obviously means something more specific in his use of the term than Wenzel does. Kinsella has to repeatedly define his use of scarcity (which, by the way, is what I believe is or should be the economic understanding of the term) in his talk with Wenzel, separating his use from whatever Wenzel is imagining. Oddly enough, I don't even think I can accuse Wenzel of equivocation...because it's fairly clear that he doesn't really understand the distinction Kinsella is making in the first place. He, instead, blankets every use of the word, from either of them, in his interpretation. This might be the most frustrating thing for me in listening to the debate.

So what are the claims here? Well, Kinsella claims that property is a social construct that is, functionally, designed to allocate user-rights to resources. But, more specifically, scarce resources. Wenzel thinks this is fine (because of his understanding of the term). Ideas are scarce. Therefore, ideas can be homesteaded. Kinsella says this is silly. Ideas are conceptual. Use of ideas aren't even tangibly excludable. If we both see an apple in a field, and we both want to eat it, only one of us can (without dividing it into sub-parts). That apple is quantitatively scarce. Whereas, if you were to come up with an idea, an infinite number of people could mentally hold it, or act upon it, without removing your access to it. Wenzel then makes a move that he believes to be a rhetorical death strike. He claims to have a formula in his head that no one else is aware of; therefore, it is scarce. If it is really not scarce, then he challenges anyone else to present the formula to prove him wrong.

Again, I believe this is a misguided use of the term on Wenzel's part. Ideas (concepts) themselves are a literal sense. The objects and descriptions of which concepts refer to may have quantitative values. The concept of "sphereness" may provide you with information about the measurements of spheres. But the concept of "sphereness" itself is not a tangible object. It is qualia. It has no measurement. It has no enumeration. Things that have no enumeration, in and of themselves, cannot be scarce in any meaningful sense.

Let's use another example. Think of the number three. Is the number three scarce? How many concepts of the number three are there?

It's just as important, here, to notice what I am NOT asking. I am not asking how many referrants there are to the concept of threeness. After all, there are several systems of numerals and languages that have differing syntactical references to three. But the semantics of all of them flow downstream to the same river. They all dissolve into the same immaterial concept. If they do not, they refer to a concept other than three.

Notice, also, that I am not asking how many people have ever, are currently, or will ever be aware of the concept of threeness. How many people have access to the concept of three, mentally, has no bearing on the quantitative features of the concept of threeness...because concepts have no quantitative features themselves.

What Wenzel is actually saying (perhaps unwittingly) when he claims that ideas are scarce, is that there are a small number of people with access to the ideas. But scarcity in the absolute economic sense denotes limit, not abundancy. Therefore his rhetorical flourish about a "secret formula" fades into meaninglessness, even if we adopt his misapplication of enumeration to concepts. For the enumerability of a thing is the tautological result of its scarceness. If we replaced talk of ideas with talk about emeralds, his misapplication of the term would become apparent.

If there were only one emerald in the world, and only one person posessed it, we would certainly say that emeralds are economically scarce. But even if there were seven billion emeralds, and every human being posessed one, they would still be scarce in the absolute sense. If you don't believe that this is what scarcity means, then ask an economist if "labor" (semantic arguments aside) is scarce. And this is why his relative use of the term has no bearing on our discussion. If we asked him to justify his ownership of an emerald in that world, and he wanted to appeal to property of "scarce" resources, would his justification hinge on the actual number of emeralds? If we can prove property rights by scarcity, and then scarcity by abundance, then can we own emeralds in the seven billion emerald world? If so, what does pointing out one person's posession of or access to something prove about scarcity and subsequently ownership?

In other words, I think that both Wenzel and Kinsella ostensibly agree that the objects of ownership are "scarce" goods. But when Kinsella asks him to demonstrate how an idea could possibly be scarce, Wenzel points to the non-abundancy of his personal formula. Even if we pushed aside the fact that he's mistakenly quantifying the concept itself instead of the people who hold it, would that ever make sense as a basis for property? That is to say - If we asked him to justify the ownership of his shoes, he wouldn't prove its "scarcity" by asking all people in the world to come forth and show him their shoes. The fact is that most people in the world do own shoes. Shoes are abundant/plentiful. But they are scarce. As they would be if he was the only one who had a pair. If we can see that it would be odd to deny that people can own shoes in either case, then we must at least passively be able to see that abundancy is not a nuanced enough concept to encapsulate property rights. And this is precisely why it is an insufficient proxy for scarcity in political and economic theories.

It's things like this that make me believe that Wenzel's general conception of and subsequent justification for property is going to be on weak grounds. Without having a firm grounding in our understanding of the purpose of property rights, we're not going to be able to see why the term "scarce" can't possibly be a simple appeal to relative abundance  And without understanding the nature and scope of those rights, we'll end up opening doors to weird possibilities - like thinking that the concept "red" could be scarce because we don't see a lot of "red things" out there in the world, or believing there to be a possible righteous world where people would have been prevented from constructing chairs with their own time and resources had someone thought to somehow contractually monopolize the concept of "chairness". I'm sure that Wenzel makes a number of perfectly defensible points on various political topics. But on the efficacy of IP, his justifications are not only wrong, but simply incoherent. There is simply no contest between Wenzel's blind appeals and Kinsella's foundational approach to the question.

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