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  • Rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods and the OWS library

    Posted by Charles Cameron on October 28th, 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit -- Jefferson, economics of possession and ideas, Occupy COG, library ]

    .
    1.

    Let’s start with Thomas Jefferson. I don’t know if he was the first to mention this curious distinction on record, but he makes the point nicely:

    If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

    John Perry Barlow quotes that gobbit of Jefferson as the epigraph to his essay, The Economy of Ideas.

    2.

    Here’s Lawrence Lessig, in his essay Against perpetual copyright:

    Tangible goods are rivalrous goods
     
    For one person to gain some tangible item, another person must lose it. For one person to gain the ownership of some piece of land, the previous owner must surrender ownership. T his is the ordinary state of physical property, and the laws around physical property are designed around this fact. Property taxes, zoning laws, and similar legal constructs are examples of how the law relates to physical property.
     
    Intellectual works are non-rivalrous
     
    Intellectual works are ordinarily non-rivalrous. It is possible for someone to teach a work of the mind to another without unlearning it himself. For example, one, or two, or a hundred people can memorize the same poem at the same time. Here the term “work of the mind” refers not to physical items such books or compact discs or DVD’s, but rather to the intangible content those physical objects contain.

    3.

    As someone whose work falls almost entirely in the “non-rivalrous” category, I am naturally very interested by this distinction, both for my own sake, and because (if the coming economy is an “information” or “imagination” economy) it may be the hinge on which the future of that economy turns…

    4.

    Which brings me to the Occupy movement, and to this curious fact which I found in an article I didn’t otherwise read. It’s from David Graeber, On Playing By The Rules – The Strange Success Of #OccupyWallStreet :

    It’s no coincidence that the epicenter of the Wall Street Occupation, and so many others, is an impromptu library: a library being not only a model of an alternative economy, where lending is from a communal pool, at 0% interest, and the currency being lent is knowledge, and the means to understanding.

    In quoting this, I mean neither to endorse nor to condemn the movement, but simply to note that its center of gravity as described here (although technically, books are rivalrous goods) falls clearly within the non-rivalrous category: it is a market-place of ideas.

    5.

    As a one-time tank-thinker, I was trained to spot early indicators.

    I don’t know what this one means, but I suspect it’s an indicator. Give me another to pair it with, and I may be able to foresee a trend.

    What do you see?

    6.

    I spotted a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita in one of the photos.

    tumblr_lsdaiufma61qzpfhxo1_500.jpg

    photo credit: Blaine O’Neill under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

    and DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers and Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories; Strindberg, The Plays and Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape; Dr Who, yeah and Star Wars too; William Gibson‘s Neuromancer and his Mona Lisa Overdrive; Max Marwick‘s Witchcraft and Sorcery; Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game and Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland — and for the politics of it all, Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict… which I’ve linked for your convenience.

    7.

    For what it’s worth…

    Nathan Schneider‘s article, What ‘diversity of tactics’ really means for Occupy Wall Street, cites Zenpundit blog-friend David Ronfeldt‘s study (with John Arqilla) Swarming & the Future of Conflict — along with (among others) Gene Sharp, whose work I discussed on Zenpundit a few months back.

     

    11 Responses to “Rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods and the OWS library”

    1. Tatyana Says:

      I can’t see anything, because your jpeg is not zoomable.

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      The fatal flaw in Jefferson’s and the Occupy Movement’s argument is that the production of ideas requires the expenditure of material resources and human time and those resources are zero-sum. Every human action requires time and resources. There is no such thing as a free action. The second law of thermodynamics forbids it.

      To extend Jefferson’s analogy of the flame: yes, once person-A has fire, it cost him to nothing to ignite some flammable material of person-B’s. However, it does cost person-A time and resources to acquire a fire in the first place. Person-A must gather fuel, he must strike flint and nurse the flame and then he must tend the fire until person-B comes along to be given flame for “free”.

      The same applies to all serious “intellectual” property. You see this in open source software. Yeah, people write valuable code and give it away for free but they acquired the skills they used to write that code because they hoped to paid for writing software at some point. There would be no open source software if there wasn’t billions of dollars a year spent on paid software. Open Source is just an epiphenomenon of a vast definitely not-free software industry.

      Nothing of value, even information, exist unless a human expends time and material resources to create it. Even tree-stump philosophers have to have their bowl of gruel every day.

      The fundamental flaw of the Occupy movement and by extension all Leftism to a greater or lessor degree, is that they just assume that material wealth just happens. They pat themselves on the back for having a “free” library and sharing knowledge but they don’t stop to think how those books or any other valuable material or informational property came to be in the first place. They think it “just happens”.

      Marx made this explicit by asserting that all material wealth was just the result of impersonal natural forces driving society down a deterministic evolutionary path towards a social utopia stead state. For a classical Marxist, humans could no more claim credit for a factory than they could claim credit for the position of the planets in their orbits. Most modern Leftists have inherited that basic outlook whether they consider themselves Marxist or not.

      The Occupy movement assumes that the material wealth generated by Wall Street will exist without Wall Street just like they assume that the books they share will exist without loggers, pulp mill workers, truckers, authors, editors, dead tree publishers and bookstore managers. That’s why they think they can arbitrarily confiscate the wealth that Wall Street manages and share it like their books.

    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      If you click on the link where I give the photo credit, you can choose different sizes of the photo to view. But I wasn’t asking for help in seeing the book titles — many of which I have listed myself. I was asking whether anyone sees further indicators of a link between a social movement (OWS in this case) with a strong economic concern, and the emergence of a rethinking of economics based on a recognition of the importance of “non-rivalrous goods”…

    4. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi Shannon:

      The Occupy movement assumes that the material wealth generated by Wall Street will exist without Wall Street just like they assume that the books they share will exist without loggers, pulp mill workers, truckers, authors, editors, dead tree publishers and bookstore managers. That’s why they think they can arbitrarily confiscate the wealth that Wall Street manages and share it like their books.

      How does that tally with this OWS-supporting quote?

      There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there, good for you! But, I wanna be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of the police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work that the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea, God bless, keep a big hunk of it, but part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

      It seems to me there are people on both “sides” who are aware of the costs of producing both (rivalrous) books and (non-rivalrous) ideas. But that’s not the point I was trying to get at — what interests me is the idea that non-rivalrous goods may be an increasingly important “feature” in economics, and that OWS may be interestingly cognizant of that possibility.

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      Charles Cameron,

      …what interests me is the idea that non-rivalrous goods may be an increasingly important “feature” in economics….

      I don’t think non-rivalrous goods are becoming an increasingly important feature of the economy. Instead, the rivalrous basis of information products is being displaced in time to where they are not immediately visible.

      Free-as-in-Beer Open Source software is a good example. It would seem at first glance that such software is the very definition of a non-rivalrous good because once a piece of software is written it can be duplicated a functionally infinite number of times without interfering in either the creators nor any others, use of the software.

      However, the rivalrous good of open source software is the cost of hardware, the cost of maintaining the internet and most importantly, the cost of training a programmer and giving him enough free time to write a useful piece of software. Open Source software is using resources built up from highly rivalrous activities sometime in the past. It’s analogous to a trust fund baby going into charity work. Somebody in the past had to build the trust and leave for their descendants so they could spend their time in unremunerative activities.

      It still takes as much time and effort to learn to be a great novelist and to write a great novel. The fact that you can distribute that novel world wide at the click of a button doesn’t mean that novel writing now no longer takes rivalrous resources. It does but the rivalrous resources were consumed long before anyone ever reads the novel.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      Charles Cameron,

      How does that tally with this OWS-supporting quote?

      Warrans quote isn’t about how things get made, it’s a quote about how people get rich parasitizing the rest of us. Nothing in the quote says that society needs rich people to build factories. The existence of a factory and its goods is treated as being beneficial solely for owner and nothing but a cost for the rest of society. Warran claims that the rich owe the rest of the society because they receive benefits from society but don’t provide any reciprocal benefit unless they pay big taxes.

    7. foxmarks Says:

      Exclusivity is a non-material rivalrous good. Those who share an idea without the creator’s permission are taking value from him. The matter is not the cost of replication (which seems to be what Jefferson is on about). What matters is the value of the idea, both in possession and application.

      To share a random string of ASCII costs the same as sharing a line of code. Nobody even bothers to replicate the ASCII because it has no value. Nobody feels special keeping gibberish to himself.

      Valuable things that have essentially zero marginal cost to distribute may be an increasing part of the economy (knowledge work). But the very act of distribution changes the allocation of value and wealth in the economy even as the act is free.

    8. Jonathan Says:

      In economic terms you might say that some people 1) confuse marginal and average costs and/or 2) systematically ignore some types of cost and benefit. For example, some open-source proponents ignore the sunk costs of software production, and Elizabeth Warren ignores the ways in which entrepreneurial activity benefits the society as a whole.

    9. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hello again, Shannon:

      It still takes as much time and effort to learn to be a great novelist and to write a great novel. The fact that you can distribute that novel world wide at the click of a button doesn’t mean that novel writing now no longer takes rivalrous resources. It does but the rivalrous resources were consumed long before anyone ever reads the novel.

      I’ve been a professional writer for most of my adult life, and am still working to improve my craft — so believe me, I’m well aware that writers need to provide themselves with extensive reading materials as well as the instruments of writing, if they are to write anything of real worth — and the books and computers we buy are rivalrous…

      I don’t think non-rivalrous goods are becoming an increasingly important feature of the economy. Instead, the rivalrous basis of information products is being displaced in time to where they are not immediately visible.

      Are you saying that ideas are effectively rivalrous, in that they may be non-rivalrous once they exist in a given mind, but required rivalrous goods to come into mental existence, and will likely employ rivalrous goods (eg books, CDs, the net) to become widespread? I wouldn’t disagree with that.

    10. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi Jonathan:

      systematically ignore some types of cost and benefit

      People of many political stripes seem to me to ignore some types of cost and / or benefit, impact (whether cost or benefit or both) on the environment and on our children’s children among them. But I don’t think that’s always “systematic” — sometimes it’s a matter of brevity, sometimes it’s a difference of focus, sometimes it’s probably bias and / or denial…

      We humans are a weird bunch, and often miss significant qualifiers in our haste to score a point, eh?

    11. Jonathan Says:

      Charles:

      I agree with you. This isn’t a partisan problem. However, my impression is that leftists tend to be particularly destructive in this regard, since they tend to recognize wider boundaries on state power than conservatives and libertarians do.