Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On Relative vs. Absolute Scarcity

In mulling over some of the particulars of recent intellectual property debates, a point that has for a long time struck me as clear seemed like it wasn't a point as widely accepted as I'd thought. Serious debates about IP have to lead back to more abstract facts about our general arguments for property. And general arguments for property will usually lead back to the problem of scarcity, which is the foundational assumption behind most economic frameworks. It's often said that, without scarcity, we'd have no particular reasons for constructs like property. I think that much might be true. But when people, perhaps as a proxy for this argument, imply that super-abundance would alleviate our need for property constructs, I begin to become a bit suspicious.

I think that a distinction has to be made between the qualities of relative vs. absolute scarcity. In a universe of near infinite abundance (material copies) of various goods, relative scarcity may all but disappear by definition. Perhaps you could steal my car without worry because I could conjure infinite replacements without much issue. But, even putting aside arguments about the cost of time and self-ownership, I don't think the relief of relative scarcity, however robust, will untie absolute scarcity in the material world.

This is because, while similar configurations of separate bits of matter may be prove acceptably interhcangeable in our ongoing projects, they will still be different bits of matter, and may therefore not suffice as substitutes in other parts of our projects. It's a by-product of the way that human beings come to create meaning and value with respect to material objects. This can be illustrated with a couple of simple examples.

Take our previous car example; if we have no attachment to that specific car, in particular, then it's easy to see how swapping the car for an exact copy would not be problematic. But what if you had built the car from the ground up over six months? Would you feel justly compensated if I stole it and then simply left a different one in its place?

Let's take a different example. How about the ashes of, say, a grandmother that you keep in an urn above your fireplace? Suppose that I come in an take it for some reason. When you begin to complain, I tell you not to worry so much. After all, I have a perfectly functioning replicator. I can copy the urn and all its contents down to the atomic level. See? No harm or loss, right?

We can see pretty clearly that it's a more complicated matter. The fact is that information about particular matter informs our semantics and valuations. And while we derive our value from some objects merely from their form, we can clearly see that this is not always so. Thus, absolute scarcity, as opposed to relative scarcity, should be our preferred basis for property rights constructs.

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