Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dear Chinese: Don't send a person to the moon

To my Chinese friends and their countrymen:

I read with dismay a recent report that the Chinese state is thinking about sending humans to the moon. Meanwhile, our own idiot politicians are spewing a lot of hot air about the glory of space colonization. While these minor-demagogues justify these projects in the name of "national greatness", these activities should instead be viewed as sources of shame. We should not allow these thieves in government to spend our money on their silly propaganda campaigns while our neighbors are suffering from want of anything.

Lest you think that I object to China's technological advancement, I can only say that I welcome the discoveries that Chinese scientists are contributing to human knowledge, and I look forward to the immense expansion of scientific research and technological progress that will occur as Chinese prosperity increases. It is for this reason that I hope that China will not squander its resources on space colonization -- these funds should be allocated in a manner that accomplishes scientific and commercial goals; instead, we are at risk of being drawn into a space race that only benefits the egos of politicians.

Monday, January 23, 2012

American patents, Chinese slavery

Yesterday, I made the argument that copyright is slavery, yet I admitted that it is only a tiny bit of slavery. Today, B. Psycho inadvertently reminds me that I should not have made any such concession; Intellectual Property plays a central role in a system that comes quite close to total slavery -- the devil's bargain between American tech companies and the Chinese state.

The gist of this accusation is Chinese workers allow themselves to be worked like slaves only because various restrictions on commerce (such as Apple's patents) prevent them from making a living any other way. These laws undermine the traditional method by which a free man would earn a living -- by working under an established and experienced mentor, and eventually setting up his own enterprise using the skills he learned on the job and the reputation that he developed. However, in the modern world, this form of upward mobility is prohibited by the law (both here and in China), creating permanent classes of employers and employees -- masters and slaves. In the Apple/China situation, patents prevent the workers from being independent, but other legal arrangements can produce a similar effect. The most glaring in my mind are the "non-compete" clauses found in many employment contracts; it's too bad that most progressives are satisfied to reform slavery without eradicating it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Copyright is Slavery

With the recent protests against SOPA and PIPA, the prosecution of Megaupload's staff, and the subsequent Anonymous attacks on the websites of various copyright enforcers (e.g. DoJ, RIAA, MPAA), it is time to distill this issue to its essence: copyright is slavery.

This statement may seem a bit extreme, since our own experience demonstrates that copyright is compatible with basic political and economic freedoms (more or less). Still, I stand by this blunt statement; copyright may be just a tiny slice of slavery, but it is still slavery.

Copyright is slavery because it empowers one person to prohibit another person from engaging in a fundamental human activity -- the sharing of songs and stories. The owners of copyright will argue that these songs and stories would not exist except for the efforts of the copyright owner (and perhaps the copyright system itself), and therefore the copyright owner does not deprive anyone of anything. This may be true in the narrow sense -- that a particular song or story would be unavailable -- but it ignores how these songs and stories interact with the human brain and are assembled into "a personal cultural catalog", as I'll call it. It is this catalog that is unjustly privatized by copyright, ultimately giving copyright owners a sort of ownership over other persons. Furthermore, the commercial value of copyright is largely derived from how humans relate to each other by sharing stories and songs, so copyright results in the privatization of our social lives by third parties and the centralization of cultural control.

Supporters of copyright dismiss the idea that our personal cultural catalogs are in any way relevant to the legitimacy of their copyrights. They point out that the assembly of our catalogs are our business, and that they did not force us to listen to their songs, nor did they force us to obsess over the characters of their stories. In some sense (they claim), copyright can be viewed as a contract between the producers and consumers of culture, where access to the story or song is only granted if the consumer agrees to respect the copyright of the producer; given this contract, if the consumer decides to weave the story or song into their own life, that is their own decision taken as a free person. Leaving aside the issue of whether slavery contracts are legitimate, this contract theory of copyright does not hold water. The main reason is that no such contract exists. Without an explicit contract (agreed to before any exchange takes place), a person cannot be expected to understand the implications of the restrictions that are being placed on him. Furthermore, there are only some situations in which such a contract could even be feasible -- such as when purchasing a book or entering a movie theater; the idea of a contract is absurd when copyrighted content is broadcast to our radios or televisions. Finally, the most important parts of our cultural catalogs are collected when we are children, and children cannot be expected to enter into contracts that will restrict their actions for their entire lives.

So that's my argument that copyright is a form of slavery. A quick Google search did not reveal any other arguments for this position. Still, if you want a more elaborate legalistic examination of the issue, I refer you to Stephan Kinsella.

Let's wrap up with a song (Copyright Slavery, by Der Plan [German with some English phrases])

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Philip Coogan’s *Paper Promises*

Tyler Cowen is promoting Philip Coogan’s *Paper Promises*.

The Amazon blurb reads:
For the past forty years western economies have splurged on debt. Now, as the reality dawns that many debts cannot be repaid, we find ourselves again in crisis. But the oncoming defaults have a time-worn place in our economic history. As with the crises in the 1930s and 1970s, governments will fall, currencies will lose their value, and new systems will emerge. Just as Britain set the terms of the international system in the nineteenth century, and America in the twentieth century, a new system will be set by today's creditors in China and the Middle East. In the process, rich will be pitted against poor, young against old, public sector workers against taxpayers and one country against another.
So, this raises the question of what will happen if America (and the debt-ridden world) does not accept the system proposed by China and the Middle East. I suppose we would be cut off from their credit. I hope that we have the self-respect to do so. Given that the credit offered by China and the Middle East is just wealth that has been looted by those states, we would be morally justified in rejecting it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wikipedia anti-SOPA blackout

Wikipedia will be offline tomorrow in protest of two bills before Congess -- SOPA and PROIP. The reason is basically this:

We depend on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. And we depend on a legal infrastructure that also allows other sites to host user-contributed material, both information and expression. For the most part, Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world’s knowledge. We’re putting it in context, and showing people how to make to sense of it.
But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.
More at: English Wikipedia anti-SOPA blackout - Wikimedia Foundation

Monday, January 16, 2012

International Trade

This is a plank of my "Left-Libertarian Platform". This post may be updated to better explain the left-libertarian position on this issue, and therefore the comments section is not the best place for esoteric discussion. However, I would appreciate comments that help to clarify the left-libertarian position. Please let me know if I have overlooked an important aspect of this issue, if many left-libertarians disagree with my description of the issue, or if there is a particularly good external resource discussing this issue in depth.

America's political and economic elite have internationalized protectionism and monopoly under the deceptive banner of "Free Trade Agreements". These treaties restrict the actions of citizens on both side of the border, while transferring state powers from representative local institutions to international corporations. The entire notion of these agreements is based on the cowardly logic that our domestic economic dysfunction is caused by the economic decisions of foreign countries. Rather than fret over their "unfair" trade practices, our leaders should be focusing on removing the rot from our own institutions.

Free trade does not require hundred-page treaties; it can and should be implemented by simple, unilateral decisions to remove barriers to cross-border trade. If a foreign country wishes to offer us subsidized exports, then we should take advantage of that opportunity rather than waste time pondering what the market would look like in an idealized world where every nation adopted our preferred economic policies. These treaties are one of many ways that America's ruling class co-opts the political system of developing countries, to the detriment of the citizens of both countries, thereby fueling resentment against the USA. [see Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks]

While there are legitimate concerns about developing commercial relations with tyrannical regimes that plunder their people's wealth, such concerns are rarely a factor in deciding actual American trade policy. More often, trade restrictions are designed to protect the (often ill-gotten) wealth of American companies abroad, or suppress any challenge to American geopolitical superiority.

Left-libertarians support the following changes to American foreign trade policy:
  • End the embargo on Cuba
  • Stop demanding that trade partners enact domestic economic reforms (particularly with respect to foreign ownership of capital) as a condition for allowing Americans to trade with them.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Copyright, Patents, and Trademark

This is a plank of my "Left-Libertarian Platform". This post may be updated to better explain the left-libertarian position on this issue, and therefore the comments section is not the best place for esoteric discussion. However, I would appreciate comments that help to clarify the left-libertarian position. Please let me know if I have overlooked an important aspect of this issue, if many left-libertarians disagree with my description of the issue, or if there is a particularly good external resource discussing this issue in depth.

The existing system of intellectual property (IP) in the USA is corrupt. This system is supposed to promote innovation, facilitate honest commerce, and fairly reward productive work; yet, in reality it stifles creativity, enables fraud, and allows a plutocratic elite to transform their political power into monopoly profits. To make maters worse, in response to public disdain for the restrictive privileges granted to the IP industry, Congress is resorting to increasingly intrusive enforcement methods that threaten to disrupt the Internet and limit freedom of speech (e.g. the DMCA).

Left-libertarians support radical reform, if not abolition, of the intellectual property system in America and worldwide. In addition to the harm caused to Americans -- as consumers, producers, and citizens -- the USA's IP cartel is restricting prosperity-promoting international trade. They demand punitive trade restrictions on any country that does not provide them with powers similar to those that they have in the USA. These mandates are enshrined in treaties such as NAFTA and CAFTA, which have had the effect of limiting access to life-saving drugs (along with other technologies) for the residents of these developing nations. The people of America have been used as bargaining chips in these efforts to extend the USA's exploitative system of IP to countries that America's plutocratic elite have plundered for many decades (with the help of local elites). [see International Trade]

To address these problems, we must first recognize that intellectual property is a government policy (as specified in the USA's Constitution), not a natural right (as asserted by advocates such as Sonny Bono). As such, we are justified in limiting these grants of monopoly privilege in whatever manner serves the public interest. We support the following reforms to limit the powers granted by IP:

  • Immediate revocation of any copyright that has extended beyond its initial time-span (i.e. nullification of the retroactive provisions of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension act).
  • Elimination of the variable-time components of copyright duration (e.g. "life + 70 years) so that there is never any doubt over whether a copyright is still effective.
  • Reduction of the term of copyright so that important aspects of culture become public within a reasonable time. The initial term of American copyright (14-28 years) is sufficient to maintain most of the commercial value of most copyrights, while recognizing the role of the general public in creating value for cultural goods.
  • Expansion of "fair use" exemptions to prevent copyright from being used as a tool for silencing critics.
  • Greater scrutiny of inventions before granting patents, so that competing inventors do not need an army of lawyers to protect them from unjustified patent suits.
  • Greater stringency on the criteria used for deciding if an invention is patent-worthy.
  • Non-transferability of trademark to parties that cannot reasonably be expected to provide a product or service that is comparable to that provided by the original owner of the trademark (e.g. the Cult Awareness Network).
  • Limiting IP enforcement to civil cases seeking monetary compensation comparable to the lost profits arising from IP infringement.
  • Revoking IP (partially or fully) whenever the owner exaggerates the powers granted by IP, or denies the fair use rights of others.

A left libertarian platform

It is often hard to describe what "left libertarianism" is, particularly because the movement includes many idiosyncratic (and strongly expressed) opinions. Furthermore, any explanation is at risk of being bogged down by preconceived notions about "libertarianism" and "anarchism". Finally, it is often difficult to clearly distinguish between ideology and utopianism.

To avoid these communication problems, I'd like to lay out the main agenda of left-libertarianism in the form of a political party platform. I'm not suggesting that left-libs actually attempt to implement this platform through electoral and legislative politics; I'm just trying to present the left-lib perspective in a manner that is compatible with mainstream political discourse. I'd like these articles to be accessible to readers who are not familiar with libertarian debates. I also would like for readers to decide that they support part of the left-lib agenda even if they don't accept the more abstract conclusions about institutional analysis and moral philosophy, or the ultimate goals of some activists.

Inevitably, the opinions expressed here are my own, being informed by my engagement with the Left Libertarian community. Some planks will be summaries of common arguments made by left-libs, others will be my own attempt to understand an issue in light of the principles and concerns that seem to motivate left-libertarianism. I see two main principles in left-libertarianism: eliminate legal (i.e. forcible) obligations as much as possible; eliminate barriers to attaining the basic necessities of life. 

Below are a list of issues that I intend to address. I appreciate any input; whether it be suggestion for additional planks, independent attempts to write a plank, or links to influential writings on these issues.

Copyright, Patents, and Trademarks
International Trade 
Global prosperity
Labor law
Cultural diversity
Free speech
Religious freedom
Military intervention
Victimless crimes
Death penalty
Social services
Police and prosecuters
Domestic slavery
Due process

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The election horserace is not news

Once again, we have descended into election season and the news media will be full of campaign coverage. This is a damaging habit for our society; many important issues will be ignored, and these conversations will reinforce the pernicious attitude that electoral politics are of supreme importance. While many intelligent people have written rants against this sadly predictable shift in attention, I'm thinking that we can do more. I'm thinking that this could be the motivation for a movement to pressure the news media to maintain coverage of broad issues, and not dwell of the idiocy of the campaign. What do you think?

I don't have many ideas right now for how to organize this opposition, aside from writing a letter to my typical news station -- NPR. But I'll give a little outline of how much coverage is appropriate for the campaign.

The first consideration is whether campaign news is useful -- will it affect any of my decisions. I can see two possible uses: helping me decide which candidate (if any) to support; and helping me to anticipate policy changes that may occur over the next five years. However, most of this coverage is useless to the vast majority of people who will be voting for a candidate: either they have already decided, they aren't paying attention, or they will wait to see what the situation is as their own election-day approaches. I'm guessing that the only people who find this information useful are the big donors and party activists who are trying to figure out who has the best shot... but these political junkies will get their news from specialized publications, not mainstream outlets. As for predicting future policies, that's pretty useless at this point: elections are pretty unpredictable, as are the actual policies that will be implemented by the elected candidate. After all, G.W. Bush gave every indication that he was opposed to nation-building ("humble foreign policy" and all), and we saw how his Presidency played out.

So even if this reporting is not useful, it is still news. I'd still like to hear the results from the Iowa caucus, and that Bachmann dropped out. That would take all of 30 seconds to report; it does not justify an hour of "special coverage", plus all-day analysis the next day. Also, it is good to be informed about how our political system works, and so it's good to have an occasional feature story about how political campaigns are waged, but the day-to-day updates are just absurd.

So why do the news agencies focus on the election? Is it because they think it's important? These people do tend to be political junkies. Is it because it is easy? They can collect all their facts from election judges and campaigns (and polling data is common enough). However, I don't see how it's any easier for a talk-show to focus on this issue over any other -- there are plenty of other experts to invite on the show (but maybe political advocates are more eager and polished than non-political experts?). Finally, do they think this is what their audience wants? There are plenty of political junkies out there. This comes down to being a culture war of sorts (without the violence and harassment of the Republican's culture war) -- will news programming be determined by the interests of partisan hacks and those who have succumbed to the cult of the Presidency, or by the rest of us who realize that real life and real change is best found in places other than the campaign trail?