Free Quasi-Socialist Culture?

by on March 8, 2008 · 12 comments

Bret Swanson had a great post plugging Chris Anderson’s upcoming book Free, which I expect to be every bit as interesting as his first book. But he then concluded his post with what seems to me like a totally gratuitous swipe at Larry Lessig’s brilliant book, Free Culture, which he characterizes as “about the demonization of property and profits” and “imposing a radical new utopian and quasi-socialist agenda on our imperfect but highly productive and creative capitalist economy.”

This left me wondering if we’d read the same book. Lessig of course criticizes large companies who have lobbied for changes in copyright law that benefit themselves at the expense of consumers. But I would regard that as “criticizing rent-seeking,” not “demonizing profits.” When Cato attacks corporate welfare, nobody thinks that’s anti-capitalist.

And I have absolutely no idea what “radical new utopian and quasi-socialist agenda” Lessig is advocating, or upon whom Swanson thinks it would be “imposed.” The changes Lessig advocates would mostly undo the changes to copyright law that the content industries have pushed over the last three decades: longer terms, abandonment of formalities, anti-circumvention rights, harsher penalties, erosion of fair use. For the most part, Lessig’s “radical new utopian and quasi-socialist agenda” is also known as “American copyright law circa 1975.”

Now, Lessig certainly has some ideas I disagree with. Some of them might even be characterized as anti-property or anti-profit. But the ideas in Free Culture certainly aren’t among them. To the contrary, as the Wall Street Journal‘s review of Free Culture pointed out, the central theme of Free Culture is something conservatives normally celebrate: reducing the role of government and lawyers into Americans’ ordinary lives. Over the last quarter century, the regulatory regime that is copyright law has intruded on more and more aspects of our daily lives. While there may very well be good policy arguments for some of these changes, as Swanson’s own colleagues have forcefully argued. But there’s certainly nothing unlibertarian about worrying that increased government involvement in peoples’ lives will have negative consequences.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Milton Friedman, Kenneth Arrow, James Buchanan, Ronald Coase, and Thomas W. Hazlett, all of whom weighed in on Lessig’s side in the Eldred decision, a case Lessig discusses extensively in Free Culture. Listen to noted libertarian scholar Richard Epstein, who agrees with Lessig that copyright law has been applied too aggressively to documentary filmmakers. Free culture is about what its title suggests: freedom. One can (and Swanson’s colleagues have) make a coherent argument that the freedoms Lessig champions are less important than the need to create incentives for the production of creative works. But it’s inaccurate to describe a book about freedom as “utopian and quasi-socialist.”

  • Bret Swanson

    Tim,

    As you’ll see, I was in the middle of posting a reply to your original comment when I saw your expanded post.

    Just one additional point to my comment below: Lessig often seems to take a libertarian-ish view on a topic, only to contradict himself or at least contradict what one thought he meant. For example, in this new National Review interview of Lessig (http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NDNhMzdlZDcwNTVlYzRiMzZkZDMxMzAyMmU5ZDg2MjY=), which I just happened across this morning by coincidence, he advocates abolishing the FCC. Hooray! But then he turns around and suggests it’s mostly for the reason that Congress would do a better job of regulating communicaitons without the downside of regulatory capture. Earlier in the interview he says we should have gone with Al Gore’s proposal in the 90s that we basically deregulate the whole Internet, but Lessig has been a huge proponent of intrusive, anti-profit, anti-property Net Neutrality regulation. Now he’s moved on to all sorts of public-election-financing and other “progressive” causes.

    Thanks again for distinguishing between Free Culture, the book, and Free Culture the worldview. As mentioned, the point was my own distinction between Free! — the model of economic abundance — and Free Culture — the “progressive” worldview.

    Best,

    Bret

  • Bret Swanson

    Tim,

    As you’ll see, I was in the middle of posting a reply to your original comment when I saw your expanded post.

    Just one additional point to my comment below: Lessig often seems to take a libertarian-ish view on a topic, only to contradict himself or at least contradict what one thought he meant. For example, in this new National Review interview of Lessig (http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NDNhMzdlZD…), which I just happened across this morning by coincidence, he advocates abolishing the FCC. Hooray! But then he turns around and suggests it’s mostly for the reason that Congress would do a better job of regulating communicaitons without the downside of regulatory capture. Earlier in the interview he says we should have gone with Al Gore’s proposal in the 90s that we basically deregulate the whole Internet, but Lessig has been a huge proponent of intrusive, anti-profit, anti-property Net Neutrality regulation. Now he’s moved on to all sorts of public-election-financing and other “progressive” causes.

    Thanks again for distinguishing between Free Culture, the book, and Free Culture the worldview. As mentioned, the point was my own distinction between Free! — the model of economic abundance — and Free Culture — the “progressive” worldview.

    Best,

    Bret

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Bret,

    Thanks for the reply. I appreciate the clarification. I would respectfully suggest, however, that “free culture” is not a good shorthand for Lessig’s worldview. It refers specifically to Lessig’s ideas about the ways that overly-broad copyright laws restrict freedom of expression and stifle the growth of a participatory, many-to-many culture. While certainly many advocates of free culture are also in favor of government regulation of the Internet, there’s no necessary connection between the two, and in fact there are a ton of libertarians who support a free culture, myself included.

    For example, I don’t see anything un-libertarian in the manifesto of Students for Free Culture. Similarly, if you look at the activities of Lessig’s organization, Creative Commons, I don’t think you’d find any of its activities objectionable from a libertarian point of view.

    In my opinion, the fundamental error of left-of-center folks is that they’re too quick to assume that there needs to be a government program for every worthwhile goal. The best way to change their minds is not to denigrate their goals, but to help them to see that government coercion is often not an effective way to accomplish those goals. The goals of the free culture movement is fundamentally private and non-coercive. Therefore, our focus as libertarians should be not on attacking the concept of a free culture, but in encouraging them to pursue those goals through non-coercive means. Given that most of what the free culture movement is seeking is a reduction of government coercion, this will not prove to be a tough sell.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Bret,

    Thanks for the reply. I appreciate the clarification. I would respectfully suggest, however, that “free culture” is not a good shorthand for Lessig’s worldview. It refers specifically to Lessig’s ideas about the ways that overly-broad copyright laws restrict freedom of expression and stifle the growth of a participatory, many-to-many culture. While certainly many advocates of free culture are also in favor of government regulation of the Internet, there’s no necessary connection between the two, and in fact there are a ton of libertarians who support a free culture, myself included.

    For example, I don’t see anything un-libertarian in the manifesto of Students for Free Culture. Similarly, if you look at the activities of Lessig’s organization, Creative Commons, I don’t think you’d find any of its activities objectionable from a libertarian point of view.

    In my opinion, the fundamental error of left-of-center folks is that they’re too quick to assume that there needs to be a government program for every worthwhile goal. The best way to change their minds is not to denigrate their goals, but to help them to see that government coercion is often not an effective way to accomplish those goals. The goals of the free culture movement is fundamentally private and non-coercive. Therefore, our focus as libertarians should be not on attacking the concept of a free culture, but in encouraging them to pursue those goals through non-coercive means. Given that most of what the free culture movement is seeking is a reduction of government coercion, this will not prove to be a tough sell.

  • http://gondwanaland.com/mlog/ Mike Linksvayer

    Tim is right. People from across the political spectrum are involved in the free culture and related movements, but whatever their beliefs about the role of the state, they’re doing the work of libertarian activists — making production less amenable to regulation and taxation — and moving the understanding of democracy and equality away from the tyranny of the majority and coercive redistribution and toward openness to participation and access to nonrivalrous goods. This largely explains why I, a libertarian for around 20 years, have been involved in some way in these movements for around 15 and have worked for Creative Commons for nearly 5.

  • http://gondwanaland.com/mlog/ Mike Linksvayer

    Tim is right. People from across the political spectrum are involved in the free culture and related movements, but whatever their beliefs about the role of the state, they’re doing the work of libertarian activists — making production less amenable to regulation and taxation — and moving the understanding of democracy and equality away from the tyranny of the majority and coercive redistribution and toward openness to participation and access to nonrivalrous goods. This largely explains why I, a libertarian for around 20 years, have been involved in some way in these movements for around 15 and have worked for Creative Commons for nearly 5.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    Just one additional point to my comment below: Lessig often seems to take a libertarian-ish view on a topic, only to contradict himself or at least contradict what one thought he meant.

    Perhaps that’s because Lessig isn’t living in an ideological straitjacket called libertarianism–he just believes in straight forward principles like individual freedom. Thus, if individual freedoms are destroyed by a government or a large corporation, he is equally concerned. It seems impossible for Libertarians to even conceptualize that individual freedom could be at risk from a corporation.

    That’s why I object when those at TLF claim that von Hayek would be a libertarian, for example. He was passionately concerned with freedom, and, had he lived to see the possibilities of corporate oppression of individual liberties that now exist, I hazard he would be very far from libertarianism.

    In my opinion, the fundamental error of left-of-center folks is that they’re too quick to assume that there needs to be a government program for every worthwhile goal.

    That may have been with the left of center folks circa 1990, but that’s not where progressives are today. Although I will say that they see the need for government action in several areas, as noted here.

    A very interesting perspective is seen in J. Bradford DeLong’s post here, where he sees new regulationism building upon and deepen Friedman’s legacy, rather than obliterating it completely.

    The work of Dani Rodick is also relevant to this development.

    Libertarianism makes too many informational exclusions for anyone who is truly concerned about human freedom to espouse it.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Just one additional point to my comment below: Lessig often seems to take a libertarian-ish view on a topic, only to contradict himself or at least contradict what one thought he meant.

    Perhaps that’s because Lessig isn’t living in an ideological straitjacket called libertarianism–he just believes in straight forward principles like individual freedom. Thus, if individual freedoms are destroyed by a government or a large corporation, he is equally concerned. It seems impossible for Libertarians to even conceptualize that individual freedom could be at risk from a corporation.

    That’s why I object when those at TLF claim that von Hayek would be a libertarian, for example. He was passionately concerned with freedom, and, had he lived to see the possibilities of corporate oppression of individual liberties that now exist, I hazard he would be very far from libertarianism.

    In my opinion, the fundamental error of left-of-center folks is that they’re too quick to assume that there needs to be a government program for every worthwhile goal.

    That may have been with the left of center folks circa 1990, but that’s not where progressives are today. Although I will say that they see the need for government action in several areas, as noted here.

    A very interesting perspective is seen in J. Bradford DeLong’s post here, where he sees new regulationism building upon and deepen Friedman’s legacy, rather than obliterating it completely.

    The work of Dani Rodick is also relevant to this development.

    Libertarianism makes too many informational exclusions for anyone who is truly concerned about human freedom to espouse it.

  • Berin Szoka

    That’s why I object when those at TLF claim that von Hayek would be a libertarian, for example. He was passionately concerned with freedom, and, had he lived to see the possibilities of corporate oppression of individual liberties that now exist, I hazard he would be very far from libertarianism.

    Of course, many libertarians would agree with you that Hayek was, at most, a market-oriented neo-liberal who was all too willing to accept state intervention.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    That’s why I object when those at TLF claim that von Hayek would be a libertarian, for example. He was passionately concerned with freedom, and, had he lived to see the possibilities of corporate oppression of individual liberties that now exist, I hazard he would be very far from libertarianism.

    Of course, many libertarians would agree with you that Hayek was, at most, a market-oriented neo-liberal who was all too willing to accept state intervention.

  • Marcvs

    It seems impossible for Libertarians to even conceptualize that individual freedom could be at risk from a corporation.

    Yeah, if you’re arguing with those “Libertarians” living in your head. Actual libertarians also have a much more nuanced view of corporations, you just have to ask them.

  • Marcvs

    It seems impossible for Libertarians to even conceptualize that individual freedom could be at risk from a corporation.

    Yeah, if you’re arguing with those “Libertarians” living in your head. Actual libertarians also have a much more nuanced view of corporations, you just have to ask them.

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