Monday, October 10, 2005

The Mugging Medium

One in a litany of shameful episodes surrounding the Hurrican Katrina disaster was Congressmen balking at giving up their pork projects to fund rebuilding in New Orleans (a notable exception was minority leader Nancy Pelosi from California). As generous as Americans generally feel toward the victims of Katrina, most voters at the ballot box would fail to make the connection between their local projects and the disaster. Congress knows this is true, and that they would sooner be punished for their failure to bring home the bacon than rewarded for any principle they display. Alaskans lobby for their bridge to nowhere, farm-belters lobby for their agriculture subsidies... every region has its own pet transportation project and pet industry. And their representatives shell out the pork to buy their votes. But it's not just Congress. The president basically bought the votes of the elderly with his woefully irresponsible Medicare law. It all brings me to the conclusion that for all the rhetoric about its power to protect and advance society, government has become primarily a medium through which otherwise decent citizens indirectly mug each other. It's an enabler for mugging. Middle-class Granny would never actually reach into the pocket of a Katrina victim for money to pay for her pills. That would be unseemly. But via the indirect means of voting, taxation, and benefit distribution, such a robbery is made to seem a civilized transaction.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Open Source Movement

For my first Liberty Saturday post, I'd like to ask the question: Where does the Open Source Movement stand on the continuum between statism and liberty?

First, for the uninitiated: what is the Open Source Movement (OSM)?

The term "open source" originated in computer programming jargon. Software is made up of code. The source code is what underlies everything in a program. An open source program is one for which the programmers have made the source code publicly available, free of charge. Other programmers are largely free to mess with the code however they like, sometimes with the stipulation that they release their version of the program in an open source manner as well. The two most famous examples of open source programs are the operating system Linux and the web browser Firefox. The open source ethos has also been extended to other kinds of information like writings, music, images, and movies. Other popular open source ventures are Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the Creative Commons license under which many blogs are written, and the image sharing web site Flickr.

At first take, the OSM seems to have a collectivist, anti-private property tinge to it. Indeed many of its prominent adherents having something of the 60s in them. The Google founders harp on more about not being "evil" than profit models. And Tim O'Reilly, who promotes an OSM-related meme called Web 2.0, and is featured in this month's Wired, had his start as a "human consciousness" teacher in Northern California. But it's not that simple.

Consider their mode of collectivism. They do tend to favor cooperation over competition. And they favor open standards over owned standards. But that doesn't mean they're all calling for the government to enforce that cooperation and generate those standards. In fact I have yet to observe any prominent OSM pundit doing so. If a bunch of programmers across the world want to contribute their free time to building a better browser than Internet Explorer, there is nothing coercive about that. Liberty isn't about doing what you like as long as it makes a profit; it's about doing what you like, period.

Now consider their seeming stance against private property. Let's be straight that we're not talking about knocking over record stores, because they should be open source. We're talking about intellectual property. And more than a few libertarians think intellectual property is a completely artificial and unnecessary construction. My rule of thumb when deciding if liberty has been transgressed or not is violence. Can one really make a strong claim that getting paid for covering someone else's song without paying royalties is actually committing violence against the original artist? We have to be careful about extending the definition of violence too far to justify government action, because that is exactly what statists do when they define "labor exploitation" and "inequality" as forms of violence. Other libertarians encompass deceit in their set of justifications for government action. Under this conception, it should be illegal to pass off someone else's work as your own, thereby justifying intellectual property. But I think non-governmental systems of accountability, utilizing reputation and non-coercive rating agencies would naturally arise to combat such abuse, if governments would just get out of the way. Moreover, I think because consumers really don't want to get ripped off, there would be such a strong market demand for these systems, that the innovation stimulated by that demand would bring about accountability mechanisms much more rigorous than the unresponsive, inefficient government watchdogs we have now.

So on the whole, the Open Source Movement is much more friend than foe to liberty. And it makes sense when you consider the generation it has sprung from. Most techies are not baby boomers (in this, the fifty-something Tim O'Reilly is quite the exception). Most techies are still in their twenties and thirties. They know that the prosperity of their times did not come from the wars on poverty and social injustice of their parents, and that it has more to do with the high tech of the 90s, and perhaps even the high finance of the 80s "me" generation.

So until the Open Source Movement starts lobbying for Firefox subsidies or demanding that Wal-Mart be considered part of the "Creative Commons", consider me an OSM supporter.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Capitalism Appreciation Day

Rainbough Phillips at Distributed Republic had the splendid idea of a Capitalism Appreciation Day. She walked the reader through her day expressing her appreciation for every for-profit entity that made her life more pleasant. It inspired me to do the same.

I was awakened exactly when I wanted to be this morning, thanks to a GE alarm clock that has never failed me. I ate a satisfying breakfast courtesy of Post, which is owned by Kraft. I drove to work in an aging Toyota Corolla that is 10 times more dependable than a car from the government perk-laden American auto industry. I was able to work for a full day's earnings, thanks to the lawyers who hired me, and the companies big and small who hire them to protect them against largely frivolous lawsuits. My job was incredibly more pleasant than it would have been mere decades ago, thanks to the innovations of companies like Dell, Microsoft, Brother, and Pitney Bowes. And now I'm typing this on a marvel of minituarization, that would have been invented sooner by monkeys with pliers than some government agency: an Apple Ibook.

I'd like to expand upon this idea of thanking capitalism, with flipping off the government.

Screw you, CalTrans, who because you have such tin ears to market demand, won't innovate satisfactory solutions to L.A. traffic congestion. Thanks for that hour and a half commute.

Screw you, labor laws that keep my employer from letting me work more and earn more, because it would be too expensive with current over-time laws.

And screw you statists in general for making my paycheck so much smaller by taxing it to support your welfare state and attempts at social engineering.

GE, Microsoft, Toyota: these companies are lambasted by either anti-corporate zealots, paranoid protectionists, or both. But not one of these companies have taken my money without me offering it. None of these companies have threatened to imprison or shoot me if I don't support their idea of a "good product" or a "good outcome." Our relationship is entirely based on free consent. In most interpersonal relationships, that would be the bare minimum: freedom from physical coercion. And it would hardly be worth thanking. But in this world we live in, that freedom is all too rare. So to all those companies and individuals out there working for your money, and not trying to steal mine, thank you.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Home, Seized Home

In Zimbabwe right now, private land is being seized by the government for capricious reasons and homeowners are being forced to burn down their own houses.

And in America, the land of the free... well at least the second part isn't true.

The Supreme Court ruled today that the government can seize private property in order to hand it over to OTHER PRIVATE OWNERS for the sake of economic development. For decades, city governments have used "eminent domain" to clear the way for highways and other public uses. They've even been allowed to do so for the sake of eliminating "blight." Now they can do it if Wal-Mart wants to build a Sam's Club on those 4 acres you managed to save up for on a teacher's salary.

I cannot express how angry and sick this makes me feel.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The Deadly Egalitarianism of Robert Reich

I just attended a speech by Robert Reich, a very prominent pundit and Secretary of Labor under President Clinton. He opened by asking the audience to suppose he was a genie. As a genie, he could snap his fingers and automatically create a new world order in which there is more inequality of wealth, but everyone, even at the lowest level, is more wealthy than they otherwise would have been. He asked the audience if they would want the genie to bring that about. Being an audience in Berkeley, a very small minority (including myself) raised hands. This scenario, he argued, would be dangerous because people generally care more about their wealth in comparison with others than about their absolute level of wealth. So resentment over inequality would fester, and eventually would burst.

After his speech I went up to the stage to talk to him. I asked him to consider his genie scenario on a global scale. In the third world there are millions of people on the brink of starvation. For them, a change in their absolute level of wealth could be a matter of life and death. I asked him, "Isn't actual starvation in the third world more important than resentment over inequality in the first?" He responded that there are real ways that inequality can harm a person. Before he could continue, I asked, "Are they worse than starving?" Mr. Reich was uncharacteristically speechless, momentarily. Then, my friend who, unbeknownst to me had come up to the stage too, blurted out, "Well, yes, in some cases." Then some others in the crowd said some things, and instead of answering my question, Robert Reich said, "I'll let you guys argue it out," and moved on to other audience members.

I was extremely frustrated. Robert Reich is one of the most influential economic thinkers on the left. He's on National Public Radio every week, and he's regularly featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and innumerable other publications. If economic policy drastically lurches to the left, it will largely be because of him and other thought-leaders, like NY Times columnist Paul Krugman. So, for him it's not necessarily an academic question. If he convinces enough people from his media pulpit, he could actually bring about a huge change. And the change he wants is to reduce absolute wealth for the sake of greater equality. Since absolute, not relative, poverty is a matter of life and death to millions of people, such a change would push a great many people off the starvation brink. Given the stakes involved, and given his position, Robert Reich should have had a ready answer to my question.