Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pre-Groundhog Day Media Notes: “Free-Market Socialism,” I.P., and Other Ambiguities

[UPDATE: The Friday, January 27, 8pm Vaclav Havel play reading mentioned below, Memorandum, is first come first served, tickets by donation, directed by Robert Anthony Peters, at 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45th.  Even if I don’t make it, you should.]

In one week, on Groundhog Day, I’ll resume roughly-daily blogging, albeit in a different vein, as you will see. 

One year ago this week, I blogged a near-final word on my C-SPAN2 appearance from late 2010, but it appears my ex-girlfriend from that broadcast is leaving the Big City and reassessing her life, so we’ve non-violently buried the hatchet, and I get a few of the old books from her vast and obscure library in the process.

To mark the occasion – and to compensate for me officially ending my Book Selections of the Month entries last month – some notes on recent books and articles of import:

•If it wasn’t David Brooks himself who titled his column “Free-Market Socialism” this week, bless the subversive copy editor who called a (mushy, Clintonian) philosophy what it is.  At the same time, kudos to Brooks for calling the economic component of his (evolving) thinking “libertarian.”  Nice to see him using the term in a positive way once in a while. 

In a way, though, he ends up being the secular-statist (to use progressive Newt Gingrich’s favorite formulation) version of a social conservative: Instead of markets for economics + religion for basic morals, Brooks wants markets for economics + state for basic morals.  It won’t work – morals are an even subtler thing than economics, and the state can’t be trusted to engineer either.  But we can all feel him feeling society’s pain, in a meta-Clintonian fashion. 

I’ll try to stop bashing him all the time.  But he and several prominent neoconservatives should retire now, along with the rest of the failed establishment, and everyone should vote for Ron Paul.  

(C’mon, conservatives – how much pain do liberal Romney and TR-like blowhard turned Catholic pseudo-moralist Gingrich have to cause you before you remember there’s a real anti-big-government candidate in the race?  There’s an escape route here, people, not just from phony candidates but from socialism itself, markety or otherwise.)

•In addition to seeing a documentary about Ayn Rand tonight – and tomorrow night dropping in on free-market Democrat Dan O’Connor’s bar event at Tammany Hall Tavern and seeing a Vaclav Havel play called Memorandum about socialist bureaucracy – I need to return a borrowed copy of Against Intellectual Property by N. Stephan Kinsella to its rightful owner. 

Much as I might wish, as a libertarian, that this book – or any other – settled the complicated issue of I.P. to my satisfaction, I think it remains a muddle.  True,
patents are a restriction on what other people can do with their own property.  But I think Kinsella is too quick to dismiss the Rothbardian notion that many of the legal functions currently served by copyright could be replicated, in effect, by an expansion of trade secrets law (all three of these being slightly different things). 

True, it’s not considered criminal conspiracy under current law if, say, you innocently overhear the plot of a book (due to negligence by someone who’d contracted not to repeat it) and recount it to people, but couldn’t it be under a plausible libertarian alternate legal arrangement?  It’d be no weirder than having a law against “receiving stolen goods,” if you ask me.  And if that’s the case, might we not want to adjust existing law (allowing more leeway for the likely independent discovery of ideas, as for instance in computer programming) instead of starting from scratch?

And that in turn means that perhaps libertarians shouldn’t be quite as gung-ho about opposing SOPA as they have been.  Its intended enforcement mechanism was wrong and Orwellian, but it’s unfair to have producers of intellectual property operate under certain legal assumptions (ones that might largely be replicated even in a purely libertarian system) and then expect them to remain passive as they suffer the violation of those legal rules. 

Likewise, we needn’t cheer one driver going 300 mph on a public highway just because we’d prefer some alternate privatized road system (which might have its own, perhaps very similar, restrictions on speed, simply for insurance reasons). 

I also don’t quite buy Kinsella’s argument that if someone violates trademark law by, for instance, selling fake Heinz ketchup, he’s only defrauded the customers and not Heinz.  Seems like interference with a transaction, fraud, and something akin to identity theft, if you ask me.  There are problems with the current system, but the weirdness arising from some of the hardcore anti-I.P. position seems almost as unsettling.  When in doubt, the evolved body of existing law has to get some deference, I’m afraid.  Call me a non-anarchist if you must.  But you would be unfair.

•I honestly try to branch out beyond my usual intellectual interests by picking up books almost at random once in a while – and it usually becomes another lesson in how non-random our brains are.

Thus the impulse purchase of a collection of the (purported) Best American Essays 2011 (though today’s Australia Day) – which turns out to have been edited by a woman who grew up in Brooklyn and was a grad student at Brown around the time I was an undergrad there, Edwidge Danticat.  There’s no escape.

Nonetheless, the fine essays in the collection taught me about first-hand experiences with the recent Haiti earthquake, plane crashes, confronting various murderers, being Christopher Hitchens after a cancer diagnosis, and the guilt-wracked longing to turn off the pacemaker of one’s ailing parent (this last, by Katy Butler, from the New York Times, much as we all complain about that publication). 

•And I see the most recent Brown Alumni Monthly also reveals that Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot, which I’d already been told to check out, is rooted in his experiences as part of the Brown Class of ’82.  For the lowdown on Brown a decade later, of course, one should click back to some of the earliest of my “Retro-Journal” entries about my life during the years 1987-2007. 

You’ll find a formative tension between utilitarianism and Nietzsche.  This much you will find on Groundhog Day in one week: Dionysus is rising.

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