Getting and not getting we lay waste our powers

by Russ Roberts on June 8, 2009

in Web/Tech

From Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism:

Those who lack any but a materialist approach to life see both acquisition and de-acquistion, fine tuned, as the keys to a blessed state.

The right worships growth, the left, asceticism. Fine tuned.

A third of the way through, I am enjoying the book immensely. The first third argues against what Helprin calls the acceleration of tranquility and points to the cultural underpinnings of the anti-intellectual property movement. Defenders of the information wants to be free viewpoint hate this book. I am finding it to be very thought-provoking. And like everything Helprin writes, it is a stylistic delight. I am scheduled to interview him for EconTalk.

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Adam June 8, 2009 at 9:11 am

Really? Because Lessig's review kind of made it seem like the guy didn't know what he was talking about and hadn't even done the most basic of research.

Adam June 8, 2009 at 9:32 am

For instance, he argues that Creative Commons people are against any kind of intellectual property, when their very existence is predicated on the existence of copyrights that copyright-holders want to be able to license a particular way. He argues that Creative Commons is all about free or open source software, and then sneers at them for taking donations from Microsoft. But if he'd just gone to the the Creative Commons website, he would see that it quite plainly states there that the license should not be used for software.

Moreover, though ostensibly a book about copyright, he does not cite a single scholarly source–and though he effaces the value of internet sources, blogs, wikis, and other internet publications are the only sources he references.

I don't know. Have you read the Lessig review? Is it really that inaccurate?

MnM June 8, 2009 at 9:34 am

That Lessig review is huge. I hope we hear some kind of response to it on EconTalk.

Douglas June 8, 2009 at 9:56 am

I'm confused regarding Helprin's quote and your categorization that "The right worships growth, the left, asceticism. Fine tuned."

Of course the right doesn't worship growth–we worship liberty. Let's say for the moment that government engineered economics really did work, and that all us right-wingers had to do was to give up our freedom from the state in exchange for a beach house with a flat screen in every room. Under those circumstances should we then sign up for socialism?

On the other hand, the left is purely materialistic and, as far as I can tell, wants all the growth it can get, as long as their left-wing government can decide who gets what.

Most importantly, the left wants nothing to do with asceticism. Al Gore, the easiest example, wants environmental asceticism for me so that he can expand his carbon footprint. But even the seemingly more difficult example of enviros that won't eat anything that casts a shadow aren't ascetics because they so often live this way in the hope that I'll be forced to live that way. Or perhaps they live this way to distinguish themselves as morally superior to me. Either way, this "asceticism" is nothing but a variation on materialism. At its core, materialism is still the idol.

True asceticism doesn't reject the material world so to claim moral superiority (and thus power) over it. True asceticism rejects the material world so not to fall into the trap of worshiping it. This strikes me as an impossibility for the political left. And for the political right, we can fall into the same trap if we mistake our ideals of freedom as a means to economic growth rather than an end in itself. It's an easy trap in which to fall because freedom most often does lead to economic growth.

SheetWise June 8, 2009 at 12:39 pm

"Defenders of the information wants to be free viewpoint hate this book."

Am I the only one having trouble with this sentence?

tarran June 8, 2009 at 12:50 pm

There is also the Rothbardian analysis of intellectual property, which allows watered down contractually based versions of copyright and trademarking but eliminates patents of monopoly completely.

It starts with an insight made by Jefferson that someone who copies one of his ideas neither picks his pocket or breaks his leg; that only objects that are both rivalrous and scarce can be claimed as property. Since an idea in one person's head does not automatically preclude someone else from having the same idea, or a plow fashioned in a particular shape by A does not automatically prevent a similar plow being fashioned by B, that enforcement of copyrights and patents and trademarks by the state trample real property rights.

In his view, an author might be able to put a copyright protection in place by requiring everyone buying his books to sign a non-copying agreement, thus making the illicit copier a person who has breached a contract. But no author or inventor "owns" the patterns he or she devises.

I wonder if he considers this classical-liberal-on-steroids argument and its proponents to be some group that is causing problems as well?

Bob Kozman June 8, 2009 at 2:18 pm


Try reading it like this:

"Defenders of the information-wants-to-be-free viewpoint hate this book."

Douglas June 8, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Furthermore, information likes 22-year-old blonde females, and likes to drive around in fast cars.

K Ackermann June 8, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I think some of the IP brokers are taking the IP industry down a dangerous road for too many reasons to get into here, but ultimately my main concern is them stifling innovation.

They have taken huge pools of money with the intent to buy up IP to licence, but it seems most of the money is used to initiate suits on IP they own but make difficult to find.

They have turned into giant litigation mills, and most often it seems those infringing had indeed done extensive searches and were under the impression they were in the clear.

They set traps and then ambush.

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