On the Impossibility of Intellectual Property
Abstract: The concept of intellectual property (IP) has been variously criticized as incompatible with natural rights and detrimental to the dissemination of innovations. In this paper I argue that it can be criticized on an even more fundamental level—namely as a praxeological impossibility. More specifically, it is suggested that since ideas are not economic goods, but preconditions of action, and since physical goods transformed by ideas become as heterogeneous (and thus as intellectually unique) as the individuals who enact such transformations, no economic goods can be meaningfully designated as appropriable in virtue of embodying the objectively definable value of one’s intellectual labor. In view of the above, I subsequently suggest that IP protection laws constitute an exceptionally arbitrary and thus exceptionally disruptive form of interventionism directed against the very essence of the entrepreneurial market process.
JEL Classification: K00, L26, O34, P48
Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski ([email protected]) is an assistant professor at the Institute of Economics at the University of Wroclaw and an affiliated scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute Poland.
The concept of intellectual property (IP) has been criticized from a number of distinct perspectives. Proponents of libertarian ethics have criticized it as incompatible with the axiom of self-ownership and the resultant structure of natural rights. More specifically, they have pointed out that the category of property applies exclusively to scarce goods, while ideas—that is, the fruits of intellectual labor—are superabundant in virtue of their infinite replicability. Thus, forcibly restricting their replication amounts to a major act of aggression against the bodily integrity and physical property of the replicating agent (Kinsella 2008).
On the other hand, mainstream economists have demonstrated that patents and copyrights, far from promoting innovation, actually hinder economic development and Schumpeterian creative destruction. This is due to the fact that patent and copyright holders are effectively intellectual monopolists, capable of nipping in the bud the commercial development of any given idea (Boldrine and Levine 2008).
While acknowledging the validity and significance of the above criticisms, this paper offers a different take on the titular concept. Instead of suggesting that intellectual property is morally indefensible or economically harmful, it suggests that it is praxeologically impossible. In other words, this paper suggests that intellectual property laws constitute not so much an attempt at monopolizing a praxeologically distinct category of resources, but rather an arbitrary curtailment of entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at resource heterogenization. This, in turn, implies that the so-called protection of intellectual property creates not so much “intellectual monopolists,” but rather uninvited institutional co-owners (Hülsmann 2006) of their potential business competitors’ arbitrarily selected physical property.
The following section states the argument in more detail. Section 3 considers some potential counterarguments to the proposition, and section 4 concludes with a presentation of some of its further ramifications.
2. THE ARGUMENT
The fundamental insight of the marginalist-subjectivist tradition in economics is the observation that what makes a good is not its physical characteristics, but its ability to enter into causal relationships with subjective preference scales of purposive agents. Thus, even physically identical goods may differ significantly in terms of their economic value in virtue of their differing causal histories and ideational connections.
However, this crucial emphasis on the subjective nature of economic value does not change the fact that genuine economic goods, in order to qualify as such, have to exhibit objective physical scarcity. Otherwise they are not goods, but the “general conditions” of action (Rothbard 2004, 4). In other words, the marginalist-subjectivist tradition—particularly as exemplified by the Menger-Mises branch—avoids the twin pitfalls of hypersubjectivism and panphysicalism: it postulates that physically scarce objects become economic goods by being “mixed” with the ideational processes of intentional beings.
Hence, ideation turns out to be a psychological rather than a praxeological activity—in and of itself it does not fall within the purview of economic analysis, nor, by extension, within the purview of property valuation. It is only when it is translated into action that it becomes a fundamental datum of economic theory and history. And yet, as soon as it enters the realm of demonstrated preferences, it inevitably heterogenizes the resulting goods, thereby ensuring their intellectual and valuational distinctness.
This is because human action is necessarily future oriented and thus entrepreneurial in the broad sense of the term—it consists not in frictionless adjustment of supply and demand, but in the deployment of scarce means toward specific ends to be accomplished in the uncertain future (Salerno 2008). Hence, ideas, viewed as preconditions of agency, are never, strictly speaking, replicated—instead, they are adapted to one’s specific circumstances, plans, and capabilities. This, in turn, implies that as soon as a particular agent transforms particular physical objects in accordance with a given idea—even if this idea is “borrowed” from someone else—they become unique goods, infused with his unique productive touch. It should be noted here that this argument is independent of the contention that property rights apply exclusively to the physical integrity of a resource, not to its value, since the latter derives entirely from the mental states of all those individuals who are interested in putting it to some use (Hoppe and Block 2002). Although few may be willing to reject this contention in full and endorse the notion that maintaining the value of one’s resources can extend to owning others’ mental states, some may be willing to concede the inadmissibility of certain actions that diminish the value of another’s assets. Underselling the originator of a “novel product” by offering exact replicas of his merchandise could be thought of as a canonical example here. However, the argument advanced in the present paper uproots this issue entirely, since it points out that physically iden
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