Been listening to Jordan Peterson a lot recently. Specifically thinking about the specter of Marxism that he’s afraid will re-assail the world. Here are my thoughts:
There is much in Socialism that is wicked and perverse, and for the greater part I stand with Jordan B Peterson in his rejection of communism, both on the basis of its fruits and of its intellectual bankruptcy. However, there is one (at least) spot in which I have departed from this sage, and in which I find some truth in socialism, and it is in the matter of Intellectual Property.
There would not be any adherence to any system of thought if it did not have some truth in it and – though I cannot claim this is all the truth – there is at least some truth in the idea that there are some goods which should be held in common. Now, what I mean by “goods” are “things that are good” not necessarily physical goods. I think this is where socialism goes dreadfully wrong, is that it is a materialist socialism. I think what we need is an intellectual socialism in the sense that the goods which we should be holding in common are intellectual goods.
My argument boils down to an argument against Intellectual Property, which has been made elsewhere and better by better minds than mine. But I have not seen anywhere this parallel drawn between socialism and Intellectual Property. It keeps leaping out at me! In Dr. Peterson’s lectures. In arguments I hear made in favor of communism. It keeps occurring to me that if socialism is so wrong it should be easy to refute. But it proves uneasy to destroy. And I think this may be the reason; Insofar as the West has accepted the idea of Intellectual Property as being a valid target for the protection of the state it is in opposition to the truth and will always call forth the spectre of Socialism.
Now, I think the socialists are also gravely mistaken – as I said – if their socialism is directed toward material things because it seems the only good which is appropriately – and possibly even – shared in common are those things not physical, ideas and – if we may go so far – spiritual goods. I don’t think spiritual goods need to enter into it, the intellectual is enough for this distinction. Dr. Peterson has said several times that his feeling is that “the academy should reclaim its intellectual property” and I think that is an error on his part, that the intellectual property should be distributed; It should be shared to all. (As an aside, JBP doesn’t actually appear to believe this should mean restricting access. His making his lectures freely available demonstrates that he believes in some other meaning of “Intellectual Property” than the one that has been enshrined in law in the West.)
As the socialist doctrines proclaim “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need.” In phyiscal things this is impossible because when you take a physical good from one they no longer posses it. If you want to give it to someone else, you have to steal it, or at least convince the person to give it up which – in the case of communism especially – often means to slay them so that they no longer have any hold on it. But this does not apply to intellectual goods! Intellectual goods may be given and retained at once; At the same time surrendered and kept.
The doctrines of socialism can apply in a system of Intellectual Property, in the sense that intellectual property can by held in common, can be produced by those best able to produce it, and can be accepted by those in need of accepting it. With physical goods, Bastiat – the economist of France – calls it “plunder”. To take unjustly by force what belongs to another. This is where I see most of the efforts of socialism directed. But if we can transmute the spirit of socialism to apply to the intellectual – and the intellectual only – then I think that we will have achieved a great good.
I’d like to end with a reading from the book of Proverbs Chapter 3. The entire chapter reading can be found at Bible.tryop.com
Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and to morrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee. Devise not evil against thy neighbour, seeing he dwelleth securely by thee. Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm. Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways. For the froward is abomination to the LORD: but his secret is with the righteous. The curse of the LORD is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just. Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly. The wise shall inherit glory: but shame shall be the promotion of fools.Proverbs Chapter 3
That’s a distinction that is too seldom mentioned in the broader conversation. If it were better recognized, perhaps many people would find that they have less to quarrel about than they’d believed.
A cousin of mine is a (very high level) mathematician. He and I were discussing a fiction novel I am working on, and I mentioned that on some level I don’t feel like I am necessarily “creating”, but rather, identifying and selecting possibilities that were already inherent in the nature of the work and the nature of the characters. He immediately got excited, saying that was a very interesting comment, that he considers himself a Platonist – that in finding mathematica formulas, he does not consider he is creating them, because they are inherent in the nature of mathematics itself.
Of course, when writing fiction, the scope of possibilities is extremely large – but it IS limited. At some point, with a big enough and powerful enough computer, you can run through all the possible combinatorial options for every single letter, numeral, and punctuation mark, up to a text length of a given size; that is the total possibility space of what is possible given this writing system for a work of a given length. And of course most of that will be gibberish; the set of coherently written books (of that length) is a much smaller subset of that all-possible-combinations set. But it is not possible to write a book (of that length) that exists outside that subset.
Since there is no theoretical limit to how long a book can be, the set of possible books is technically infinite, but it is a rather “small” type of infinity, and one can probably select some arbitrary length past which there is little point in considering additional possibilities.
Which leaves us with the clear conclusion: a writer does NOT “create”. The writer therefore cannot “own” what they write. They may have been the first to “find” it, and deserve credit and compensation for that, but the possibility was inherent in the nature of our language, alphabet, and the physical law of the universe, from the start. No more does a mathematician “own” the formula 1+1=2, or the quadratic formula, or the Pythagorean theorem, or the much more arcane and difficultly comprehensible things my cousin is working on, than a writer can “own” the phrase “See Jack run” or “The cat sat on the mat” – or (shocking heresy, I know) The Lord of the Rings.
And if all that is too high-flown and nerdily autistic, here’s a functional argument: for much of the history of this country, you could go to the library, check out and read a book, and the author did not get paid. You couldn’t go making Xeroxes and selling it as your own, but making Xeroxes and passing them around to friends tended to not get anybody in trouble. That system worked. Extending it into the digital age has always struck me as the correct and sustainable path.
And before anyone says “but copying is so much easier now”: People should pay for the packaging, not the content. When I buy a book, I want the nice physical edition I can hold while I relax in the hammock, not a crappy unformatted PDF. When I buy a game, I want the clean installer that will figure out how to work with my system without my having to do stupid amounts of troubleshooting and a guarantee of no malware and no hassles with corporate motherships trying to micromanage what I can and can’t do, unlike the pirate version I can get off abandonware sites or pirate torrents – or the DRMed products of corporate greed.
Kindle Unlimited (for all the terrible things that can be said about Amazon) is a good step in this direction. You can put stuff up there and a huge audience of readers pay a flat monthly fee to read as much as they like from as many people as they like. If they then like your stuff enough, they can go buy physical copies of other things you’ve written. In the end, the customer has to WANT to pay you; trying to force that never works.
Agreed on most points, though I take issue here:
I was under the impression that the free market was the method of determining the price of a good and service. This method requires the possibility of competition, which IP eliminates. That the government would desire to collude in the creation of a plethora of unjustified artificial monopolies is understandable. That we would have assented to enshrining this injustice in our constitution is much more baffling. I would rather go back to commissions, where those skilled in discovery and creativity are engaged for a particular purpose, the intellectual results of which are then freely available to all.