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Posts Tagged ‘libertarianism’

It’s been a while since I’ve settled on any particular label for my beliefs and ideas about politics and economics for very long.

I mean, “liberal” probably has the longevity title to date but I’m a way out of that one now.

“Libertarian socialist” still feels like a pretty comfy fit. “Anarchist” often works but isn’t that specific and often doesn’t convey a whole lot of useful information to someone hoping to get an idea what I think about stuff.

As far as economics goes, more and more these days I identify as a “You know neo-liberalism? Like, whatever the opposite of that is”.

Except if you were going etymologically you might then conclude I’m a “retro-conservative”, which is one of the few things that sounds like it might be even worse.

The search continues.

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So says this article.

We live in a world where corporate capitalism has always completely depended on state power, and the basic practical thrust of left statism has always been annexation of the economy.

I still naturally think of myself as being on the left, and tend to find more common ground with lefty ideas and positions than with self-identified right-wing thought, but it’s a fuzzy and nebulous excuse for an axis, and there are much more fruitful ways available of summing up what I consider politically important. I’m an anti-authoritarian more strongly than I’m, say, a socialist – and in fact much of my feeling on the latter flows from my vehemence on the former.

Rather than “libertarian socialist” or other similar labels I’ve found helpful in the past to sum myself up, I think I’m going to start saying that my political views can be best represented in the form of the Konami code. It conveys no useful or meaningful political information, but it’s kinda funny the first time you hear it, and feels like it could be referring to something deep and profound, and establishes that I probably enjoy being irritatingly contrarian.

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A question often asked of libertarians – of people who think that society can and should organise itself without centralised government, or at least with much less of it than is commonly found in many Western societies – is this: “In a world without a government to collect taxes and provide public services, who will build the roads?”

Roads, after all, are an obvious example of something which can produce positive results which far outweigh the cost of producing them (otherwise we wouldn’t keep building them). But, unless every road is a toll road, their benefits can’t be hoarded by the people who put in the initial expense. No private actor in the free market would bother providing useful public services like building roads, the argument goes, if they’re not going to make a profit off of it themselves – even if building the road would provide a benefit to everyone.

In some ways, it’s a symbolic and rhetorical question, used to assert the need for some form of government in order to provide certain necessities of modern society. But it’s often posed seriously as well, and numerous responses have been offered, by more savvy political commentators than I, ranging from “nobody knows, but it’s worth finding out because we’d probably find a better solution than the current one”, to “who needs roads anyway?”

Whatever the current state of the political theory, we’re yet to enact any solution to this problem, besides establishing a government to pay for projects like road-building, and fund it by taking some of everyone’s money by force, whether those people want to pay for a road or not. In most mainstream discourse, the idea that there actually might be a better solution – or an alternative, functional solution at all – doesn’t come up a whole lot. People tend to revert to whichever standard position they’re most familiar with (libertarian/statist) and defend that against the other, without considering whether the scope of reality might be any broader than this one binary issue.

A similar dynamic plays out in discussions of any sort of an unconditional basic income. If everyone in your society were being provided with sufficient resources to get by, to live a decent life with basic amenities, regardless of their employment status, then who would do all the unpleasant jobs that we need people to do? Who would do the unpleasant jobs in sanitation, the boring jobs like directing traffic, the dangerous jobs like fighting fires – or, indeed, the necessary but perhaps unfulfilling or rather dull jobs like building roads?

I’m still slowly building up a worldview which can encapsulate some sort of satisfactory answer. But in the meantime, I want to highlight something hiding in the question.

Let’s assume that you oppose the idea of an unconditional basic income – of a comfortable minimum standard of living being provided to everyone, regardless of history or circumstances – on the grounds that people don’t deserve what they haven’t earned, and will be unmotivated to provided any useful work or contribution to society if all their basic needs are taken care of.

Implicit in that position is the following belief:

In order to keep society running smoothly, we must routinely threaten people with destitution, starvation, and homelessness, if they refuse to do what we need them to do for the greater good. These tasks are so vital to our way of life, that the best way to achieve them involves making people’s ability to feed their family, heat their homes, and live somewhere with a roof over their heads, entirely conditional on whether they’re willing to do them. I cannot conceive of a more practical or desirable way to motivate people to do the work necessary for modern life than to impose this threat on every living person by default.

Without hashing out the arguments and counter-arguments of whether this is a convincing argument or not, let’s at least be clear that this is absolutely the claim you are making, if you don’t think that an unconditional basic income is practical, or that there’s any way roads would ever get built if there wasn’t a government in charge to make it happen. At least own your position in explicit terms.

Classroom discussion questions

1. So, wait, who actually builds the roads now?

2. They must know something about how you build roads, right? Is there any other way we could structure society so that they could keep doing that?

3. No? The way we happen to do it exactly here and now is the only way it’s possible to imagine it ever being done? Okay, fair enough.

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When I wrote this – about the assumption that people who haven’t achieved as much as you are inherently less virtuous – I missed one of the most interesting observations.

The key assumption behind, say, asking what other people’s excuse is for not reaching the same heights you have, and overcoming hurdles and problems like you did, is that success is entirely about determination, grit, mettle, tenacity, fortitude, and other internal merits. Any attribution of failure to external influences – even to some small degree – is written off as excuse-making.

Which is clearly nonsense. It’s not simply a matter of having some innate thing called “character”, and triumphing by pure will, totally disconnected and independent from the outside world. The people we are, and the “determination” or whatever that we’re capable of displaying, is massively shaped by what the world does to us.

But supposedly, it’s unacceptable to pass any shred of one’s shortcomings onto circumstances beyond one’s control, or to expect to be helped along by any kind of intervention from outside your own personal driving force to succeed. Stepping in to help someone out, simply through altruism (it’d be different if you were investing in a business proposition) is beyond the pale; some few exceptional individuals have made sacrifices and overcome obstacles to reach success, and anyone who wants to do the same should just follow that example and not expect any hand-outs.

Except, that’s not how the people who reason this way actually behave. They do make intervention’s into people’s lives, get involved with people’s efforts to succeed, and make contributions in an effort to affect and shape other people’s chances of success.

It’s just that their only intervention is what’s evident in blog posts like the one I linked to which irritated me so much.

Their intervention is to scold, and to chastise, and to spread this message that success or failure is decided entirely within your own mind.

The one contribuion that Matt Walsh guy thought it was worthwhile making, to the lives of women who’ve had children and haven’t got themselves into the same shape that Maria Kang did, was to tell them to be inspired by her message, and to quit whining if they were offended, and to stop coming up with feeble excuses for not already having reached a pinnacle of perceived physical success.

What was he expecting this to achieve?

Did he think it might affect someone’s behaviour, and give them a mental boost that’d help them to work harder and achieve everything they’re capable of? It seems like his intention was something along those lines. But if such hectoring is capable of influencing people’s path, of impacting on their decisions and swaying their chances of success, then why shouldn’t other factors outside a person’s own psyche have a similar effect?

The tone of the article acts as if people are expected to simply be superior human beings by their own force of will – but simultaneously, pointing out their current state of inferiority is presumed to motivate them and steer their actions, in a manner which its whole argument says is impossible.

If no valid excuse for failure is acceptable, then there can be literally nothing in the physical universe which could have any impact on what somebody achieves. And then you get into a kind of weird predeterminism which I don’t think anybody actually adheres to. Black people should stop complaining about being targeted by the police and just knuckle down to work harder and compensate for it. Non-violent drug offenders should get a shave and a haircut and rise above that criminal record which might stop less determined individuals from getting a worthwhile job. Anyone in Somalia who hasn’t managed to net themselves a nice little summerhouse in the Hamptons by now is just lazy.

If you can acknowledge that the preceding paragraph’s conclusions are insane, then you can’t deny that you – along with the rest of the world around us – have the power to influence other people’s chances of success, by making things easier or harder for them to achieve what they aim for, and making them more or less likely to possess the kind of will, determination, and self-awareness to be able to work meaningfully toward their goals in the first place.

One way to do that is by telling them to stop making excuses and work harder for their rewards like other people have. Another way might involve being less of a dick.

But if there’s any justification for intervening in people’s lives with a nagging article like that one, then there’s no reason to be down on other ways of helping people, or of understanding the circumstances in which they might not be living up to their full potential, and might deserve help.

Classroom discussion questions

1. What might be a valid excuse for not looking like Maria Kang when your kids are the same age as hers?

2. How do you balance the importance of personal autonomy against acceptance of fate and circumstance?

3. Am I being unfair characterising this as a largely right-libertarian position?

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What I don’t want to talk about, more than I have to, is the incredibly condescending tone of an article I read recently, and the way it dismisses any criticisms of its message as the irrational ravings of hateful monsters.

There’s an attempt at logic and argument in there, buried under a mountain of disingenuous rhetoric. And while the latter is what originally made me grumpy, I don’t want to respond emotionally in the way that first occurred to me.

Instead, I want to talk directly about the item being defended with such sneering derision for those who took umbrage to it. This item:

If you’re anything like me, and haven’t seen this before (apparently I missed the Twitterstorm when it first made the rounds), you’re probably feeling some things quite strongly after taking all that in. Notice what you’re feeling and how your hindbrain wants to react. Mull that instinctive response over. It’s important, but you need to not stop there.

Maria Kang actually seems to be a decent person. She’s overcome adversities in her life and succeeded despite them, and she seems to genuinely want to encourage other people to do the same. There’s a significant understanding gap evident in the above picture, and the caption is massively misjudged, but I think there was very little malice to her intentions.

However, there is an implication to the words she chose to use. In her blog entries discussing it later, she acknowledges the way her message was interpreted by many, but never really takes ownership of it. And the unsympathetic, compassionless, impatient, victim-blaming overtones – even if they’re not at all what she intended – represent a tragically common worldview. A worldview in which there are no “reasons” when it comes to absolutely any level of shortcoming or failure, only “excuses”.

Let’s pretend that I’m somebody being asked the question, by somebody who takes this “no excuses” attitude (which I acknowledge is not that of Maria Kang herself). Here’s how I might answer:

What’s my excuse?

My excuse is that different people’s bodies react to stimuli in different ways. Different people get saddled with different genetic backgrounds, as well as upbringings which teach them different life lessons, so they end up with massively different mental and physical responses to certain situations.

Some people find some things difficult or painful which are a positive delight to others. Some people are passionately devoted to interests and hobbies which bore the pants off 99% of their fellows. Some people have an arrangement of chemicals in their brain which behaves in an entirely different way from the arrangement of chemicals in yours.

I am a different person from you. I have different goals, different loves, different struggles, different expectations, different capabilities, different talents. The ways in which you and I might vary are numerous.

Maybe you were already keen on fitness before having kids, and had become familiar with the routine of it, surrounding yourself by other people and immersing yourself in a culture which also focused on exercise and healthy living, familiarising yourself with the lifestyle, all of which made it easier for you to slide back into it after your pregnancy. Maybe I was in decent shape before having children and had other interests beyond putting in the effort to do much better than that, and have been struggling to get started since then, unfamiliar as I am with the complexities of the fitness industry, and never having previously learned to identify and make efficient use of the most healthy foods.

Maybe you have family who live nearby who’ve been able to help out with childcare now and then, which let you find some spare time to do the things that matter to you, like keeping in shape. Maybe I don’t have anyone around like that, and have had less free time for such things outside of work and raising my children.

Maybe your innate physiology was such that your body handled several pregnancies well, and allowed you to recover quickly with few ill effects each time. Maybe I had a different body structure from yours, received different medical treatment, and experienced more complications during the process, so that after giving birth I’d lost a lot of blood, was scarred and depressed, and needed a longer period of recovery before I could reasonably be expected to start living a normal life at a reasonable pace again.

Maybe when I attempted to implement exactly the same workout regime as you, I was reaching beyond the options nature made available to me, and spent a half-hour throwing up from the over-exertion after five minutes, thereafter being quite reasonably put off from making any more serious attempts to get back in shape for a while.

Maybe you’re a shit-ton richer than me and so have a lot more options open to you, in the way that money tends to do, as well as avoiding a lot of the negative health effects of the stress that I face from my day-to-day worries of whether I’m going to be able to cover the rent next month after paying for my kids’ food and healthcare bills.

Maybe there’s quite a lot of evidence that a person’s physical fitness and the kind of body they can attain are largely determined by genetics, which are completely beyond anyone’s control.

Maybe there are resources available in the area where you live which aren’t accessible to me.

Maybe something else. Maybe none of these. I don’t know you or what your deal is, after all.

But maybe, in short, your disingenuously posited question actually has quite a lot of perfectly valid answers, and to imply otherwise is petty and mean-spirited and cruel.

(And we haven’t even touched on the idea that maybe everyone else excusing themselves for not being more like you isn’t even necessary. Maybe we neither want nor need to aspire to your alleged optimal state. Maybe my excuse is that I’m fine just the way I am and don’t want to meet your standards for how a person should apparently look if they oughtn’t to feel bad about themselves.)

So that’s enough maybes.

Obviously not all of them will apply. But some of them could, and they don’t deserve to be drowned out by the sound of yet another game of “find someone who’s already achieved something impressive despite ostensibly having things at least as tough as you”.

That game can be a malevolent force when it starts being used to promote the “everyone can do anything if they just try” ideology at the expense of actually existing human beings. After all, what does it say about people who fail? People who encounter setbacks from which they never recover? People who don’t “win the fight” against illness or circumstances, who never reach what you insist on calling their full potential?

They could’ve thrived if they’d just put in the effort – look at all these other people with the same condition who did – but they failed. So they must not have been trying hard enough. So, really, they didn’t deserve any better than they got.

This is an unkind and damaging way of thinking.

And in response to another obvious objection: None of the above diminishes your achievement of attaining the body you presumably want while successfully raising three happy, healthy children. If you’re proud of having worked hard to accomplish what you consider worthwhile, then that’s great. I have no desire to take any of that away, and if we hadn’t got off on kinda the wrong foot I’d be totally happy for you. None of this is about hating anyone for their success.

Suggesting that maybe some people had less free time than you doesn’t mean that you’re a slacker. Wondering whether some folk might have suffered greater financial hardships than you doesn’t imply that you haven’t worked hard to use your own limited funds efficiently. It may well be that you accomplished something which required a great deal of bravery and strength and hard work; but you completely undermine your own merits if you refuse to accept that it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone else to be capable of the same results.

It’s not that the attitudes you find fault with don’t exist. There is such a thing as making excuses, and refusing to take responsibility, and stubbornly blaming all your own failings on the world fucking you over. But there is also such a thing as being fucked over by the world. And you’re massively over-simplifying the way the universe operates, in quite an offensive and patronising way, to endorse the line of reasoning: “I worked hard and got what I wanted; therefore the only reason most people don’t get what they want is that they don’t work hard.”

It’s a very right-libertarian thing, but that’s a tirade for another time. This has gone on far too ramblingly long already, so here’s where I’ll draw the bottom line:

Telling someone “You can achieve anything” can be encouraging and empowering.

Following it up with “So why haven’t you?” just makes you a dick.

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So the Tories are cutting benefits for the poorest people struggling hardest to support the most modest lifestyles, yadda yadda tax breaks to billionaires, you know the score.

And one of the ideas Chancellor George Osborne has often used while attempting to rationalise policies which take more money away from low-income households than the richest, is that of “making work pay”.

The terrifying bogeyman he and other Tories like to conjure is that of the feckless scrounger, probably with a Northern accent, who lounges comfortably at home with their curtains drawn all day, living the high life on benefits which your taxes paid for, and who – because of the current, unjust welfare system – has no incentive to go out and work, when they can live just as cushy a life at home on benefits.

Now, leave aside for a moment that, statistically speaking, this character is so close to fictional as to make almost no difference to any of our country’s financial troubles; ignore briefly how laughable is the idea, to thousands of people who simply can’t find work, including many with disabilities or who’ve been forced into mandatory unpaid labour, that life on benefits is the “easy” choice; disregard, for the time being, the extent to which countless legitimately struggling individuals and families are cruelly stigmatised and marginalised by such characterisations as those favoured by the Conservative party.

Even without fighting any of those points, Osborne’s premise is wrong.

The Tory plan for welfare reform depends on people being bullied into doing a job, any job, no matter how low-paying or degrading, because there is no bearable alternative. They want to make life sufficiently uncomfortable, for those people they think aren’t trying hard enough, that they’ll all just jolly well try harder. Their worst nightmare is that people without savings or property or investments might somehow be comfortable in their lives, and not feel compelled by fear of starvation or homelessness to desperately look for work.

I hope my biased and provocative use of language is making it clear how I feel about this attitude. I really do.

Because aside from being heartless, it’s simply an incorrect view of humanity.

There’s this crazy wacky idea that some crazy wacky socialists seem keen on, called the guaranteed livable income. The basic proposition is to drastically simplify whatever system the country currently has in place to carefully and cautiously redistribute wealth, offering the most basic safety net it can to those who need it while making damn sure no scroungers come along and get a penny more than they deserve… and instead just give everyone enough money to live on.

No means testing. No penalties for not following the DWP’s instruction. You just all get enough money to live on. Guaranteed.

I told you it was crazy. No doubt the obvious problems and holes in this plan, and the many reasons we’re not already doing it, are clamouring to escape your furious fingers and make themselves heard in the nearest available comments section already. But it may astound you to know that the various economists and activists who’ve been investigating and exploring and testing out this idea for some decades have probably already considered many of the objections that sprung to your mind within around fifteen seconds. Whether or not they ultimately stand up, I’m not sure, but don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back for utterly annihilating this whole worldview simply by having the blinding insight that giving money to people costs money.

Because, like I said, the Tories were wrong. A guaranteed livable income is about as far as you could possibly exaggerate their nightmare scenario. They’d have you believe that, in such a situation, the zombie feckless scrounger virus would spread inexorably across the land. Nobody would bother doing any work when they could just slob around picking up even more free money than they get now, with no risk of approbation or penalty. Without the threat of poverty to spur people into productivity, there’d be nobody actually making the money to hand out, and the whole system would collapse.

I wouldn’t put it past them to put it in similarly apocalyptic terms, too. But it’s a conclusion that depends on a cynical and inaccurate view of humanity. (The rest of humanity, anyway. Dave and George and the rest of that crowd could live comfortably without having to work another day in their lives, and would surely claim to do what they do out of a sense of duty and service, rather than being in it for the money. They just can’t imagine a similar altruism or public-spiritedness in anybody else.)

Only an unjustified contempt for other people can be the basis for thinking that they need to be threatened and browbeaten and punished into doing useful work; the relatively little amount of data that’s been allowed to exist indicates exactly the opposite.

I say “allowed to exist”, because it’s not hard to imagine the interest that governments might have in perpetuating the idea that a power structure needs to be maintained in society. In the case of the particular experiment with a guaranteed income described in that article, in Manitoba in the 1970s, the government withheld the data after the programme was scrapped, and wouldn’t let anyone gather further evidence which might have vindicated it.

What is known, though, from the data available, is that the Conservative nightmare singularly failed to come true. People didn’t just sit at home mooching off the state when there was free money to be had. In general, they kept working their jobs. There are reasons why people work beyond earning money to avoid poverty, after all. It can be rewarding, a way to socialise with people whose company one enjoys on projects one finds worthwhile. Particularly if you have the freedom to leave a work environment you don’t enjoy, and take the time to find someplace more suitable, without having to panic over paying the rent in the meantime.

And with that extra freedom, and without the stress and worry of paycheck-to-paycheck living, people were healthier. The resulting decrease in hospital visits, if similarly expanded over the whole of Canada, would save billions of dollars. And the only people who did drop out of work to live an easier life on free government money were new mothers – who spent more time with their babies – and teenagers – who graduated high school in improved numbers and had the chance to find jobs they might actually enjoy, and feel productive in, rather than whatever came along first which would allow them to pay the bills.

It’s a crazy idea. And the idea that something this crazy might actually work thrills me like little else. This right here is the shit I read about which gets me excited for a more awesome world and makes me want to share it with everyone in rambling blog posts with overly hurried endings because it’s late and I want to finish up and get it posted before I go to bed.

It might be a pipe dream. But I don’t think it has to be. And either way, it’s preferable to whatever heinous visions occupy the minds of our politicians as they sleep.

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The premise of this article is that intellectual property shouldn’t be considered a “right” in the way that it commonly is, and that the current legal arrangement of IP “rights” is not a good solution to the problems they purport to address.

I find myself drawn towards ambivalence on this. It seems both highly persuasive, and simultaneously strangely unsatisfying in a way that’s hard to pin down.

Once I dig a bit deeper, though, it seems like the part of me performing a rational assessment is the part which follows the logic of the article and agrees entirely. The part that’s reacting against it seems to be coming from a place of “this is new and unfamiliar and significantly different from the world I feel I understand, and is therefore unimaginable, impossible, and ridiculous”.

I haven’t excised the latter part from my day-to-day assessment of the world yet, not by a long shot. Which is fine. I’m aware it’s there and sometimes know to look out for it, which is a start.

It’s a difficult idea to take on, that intellectual property is simply not fit for purpose, and it’s very easy to come up with a number of instinctive, knee-jerk objections. Even while I see how much sense it makes, and how much it lines up with my ideas of what a more fair, egalitarian, just, productive, and universally beneficial society should look like, part of my mind just isn’t happy with it. And I think this has something to do with a tendency to consider things individually, rather than as part of a more general set of changes.

It might be our natural inclination, on reading about an idea like this, to imagine making just one stand-alone alteration, to the particular part of the world most familiar to us, and imagine that the result represents the full extent of any possible development in that direction. This means that numerous obvious problems spring up, and they seem all-encompassing.

“No intellectual property? How will writers and artists and musicians get paid for anything? What will motivate people to research new technologies, if everyone else will be able to profit from them? Why wouldn’t everyone just steal each other’s ideas and content and creative output willy-nilly, even more carelessly than they do now, in this modern age of torrents and pirate bays and get off my lawn you damn kids!”

But sometimes, even if making a single change in isolation wouldn’t have a great outcome, that change can be a part of something beneficial.

Kicking out the crutches from under someone with broken legs might in no way make things better – but working toward a situation where those crutches aren’t there can still be a good thing.

Or, if you tried eating flour straight out of the bag, you might conclude that you’d prefer to go hungry, but that’s not a good reason to decide that flour always makes things worse. (You clearly haven’t been eating all the breads and cakes and scones that Kirsty’s been constantly baking for me for weeks.)

So, sure. Throwing out IP but leaving the rest of our international infrastructure completely intact might not be an immediate recipe for a productivity revolution or an upsurge in everyone’s liberty and quality of life. But, just because the immediate consequences would be problematic if we did that, we shouldn’t ignore the problems that the current system creates, exacerbates, and allows to persist.

The problems with the present system should be more than enough to make us take seriously the question of whether doing things vastly differently from the status quo might not be a huge improvement. At best, the tangle of intellectual property laws we have at the moment can claim to weakly staunch some of the systemic problems arising from a monopolistic government providing constant and ubiquitous support to an equally monopolistic corpocracy.

The standard objections for why we need patents, intellectual property laws, and so forth, are always framed as if change could only ever be applied in one narrow, restricted way. They warn of legitimate problems, but act as if the best defence against them is already in place, and ignore the flaws in the system that already exists.

Oddly enough, I don’t want to see artists unable to achieve recognition for their work and starving in the streets either. I want everyone to have the time and opportunity to explore their creative interests and put their art out into the world, as much or as little as they want, in whatever medium most interests them, and gain recognition among consumers with similar interests by letting their work be experienced as widely as possible. And if that work is Harry Potter fanfic, or Star Trek slash, or a cruel parody of the novel I might eventually get around to finishing, the currently popular methods of cracking down serve to stifle far more art than they protect.

This all goes for patents on inventions, too. Patents are ostensibly offered to encourage companies to put time and resources into exploring new technologies and ideas, which wouldn’t be profitable if they couldn’t maintain some kind of proprietary rights over those ideas afterwards. But that very fact – that shared breakthroughs are considered less desirable than those which are legally prohibited to all but a single group – is already an artefact of the badly flawed way we fund research.

And perhaps if the one thing you were to change about the world was to scrap patent law, the doomsayers might have a reason to be worried. But this doesn’t mean we should be content with the present system and assume any change will be for the worse. It means that there’s much, much more that needs to change as well. Otherwise we’ll still be acting as if corporate profit margins were indicative of the benefits available to humanity.

I want to see everyone have the chance to do creative, inventive, imaginative, potentially ground-breaking work. The present system of IP law says that we’d have no motivation to do so, if we don’t drastically hobble everyone else’s ability to join in, compete, or enjoy the fruits of each other’s labour. I disagree.

Intellectual property supports a state of affairs largely antithetical to that vision. Moving past it won’t be a single sweeping change which will make everything better; it’s one of many necessary ingredients to building a world worthy of everybody in it.

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