Techno-Fascism

 | 

In January 2014, for one month, I held a job as a document review attorney in Manhattan. I was a member of a team of 30 attorneys, and we each reviewed about 500 documents a day. This means that 15,000 documents in total were reviewed each day. One day, out of those 15,000, my supervisor (who only had two assistants and was very busy herself) found one document on which I had made a serious mistake, and gave me a talking to about not making that mistake again. I was very embarrassed and promised to do better. But my initial thought was: how did she find my one wrong document out of 15,000? Then I realized: all the documents were stored electronically, and she simply ran a computer search that notified her of which documents contained the error.

My point is simple: there are no needles in haystacks anymore. One document out of 15,000 can be detected using a computerized search, because a computer can read 15,000 documents in a few seconds. If a computer search can find that, what else can it find? A search of every email in the Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook email systems with the word “libertarian” in it? A search of the internet for a list of every libertarian Meetup? Given a set of names from a libertarian mailing list, a list of all addresses? Can you see where I’m going with this? How difficult would it be for a socialist government to round up all the libertarians? Using computers, a government could find us. Using computers, it could monitor every email and every phone call, so that we could never organize any resistance. Using computers, it could even do profiling to identify the people whose personalities would make them sympathetic to liberty, and add those supporters to a list before they made a move to act or even knew what libertarianism is. What Ellsworth Toohey said about “future Roarks,” namely, that they will all be destroyed, comes to mind.

Look at your smartphone. Does it have a webcam? Yes. Is it GPS enabled so it can give you driving directions? Yes. But how easy would it be for a government to turn on that webcam and direct a permanent video feed from your device to a government monitoring station? And to keep a constant record of where you go, every minute of every day? And could the government do it by issuing secret orders to Google and Apple, and to Microsoft, which controls the smartphone operating systems, so that your own device spied on you without your knowledge? I can tell you that your smartphone could easily be turned into a chain around your leg. If 300 million smartphones were so converted, the data could be sent to computers that, as I described above, could analyze the data for trends useful in detecting rebels — for instance, by listening for a conversation including such keywords as “freedom” or “rebel,” or noticing when you go to a place where libertarians are believed to meet in secret. 1984 is a real possibility, though a little late in 2014.

The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment.

Advances in technology bring great joy. But they also bring danger, especially when the advancement of politics lags far behind. Einstein’s work revolutionized physics; it also led to the nuclear bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Similarly, I fear that the rise of computer technology, in the hands of a dictator, could lead to “techno-fascism.” The dictator would not need spies, because cameras and sensors, analyzed by computers, would detect all traces of resistance, and tell the secret police exactly where to go to crush rebellion before it started. Under all dictatorships of the past, rebels could meet in secret, make plans, and try to revolt, because spies could not be everywhere. Now they can be.

The fact that there are no needles in haystacks anymore was actually visualized in Batman: The Dark Knight, where, toward the end of the movie, Batman uses the Bat Computer to hack into Gotham’s cell phones and eavesdrops to locate the Joker. If, in this way, the government spied on people in the name of safety and fighting crime, then the public might let it happen, until it was too late to reverse the practice.

Well, if doom awaits, what do we do? The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment. Read it. In the modern era, no charter of civil liberty is more crucial. We must fight to protect the Fourth Amendment, and to use it in courts.

Meanwhile, we can expect spies to spy on other spies. Because there are no needles in haystacks anymore, every side can see what the other sides are doing. The techno-fascist wants to spy on others while remaining invisible himself, but this is impossible; everything is visible in the world of Big Data.




Share This


Moving Forward, Clichés Remain

 | 

On August 8, Fox News reported on the Obamacare-avoidance strategy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Since Shaheen is running for reelection, she never mentions the great legislative achievement of the supreme leader of her party; Obamacare is just too unpopular to be named. Accordingly, in an interview played by Fox, Shaheen answered questions about the program by noting that she didn’t write the Obamacare law. She didn’t say whether this was because she opposed its provisions (although she voted for them) or because she can’t write. She did observe that “hindsight is always 20/20.”

She said this with great satisfaction, as if she were proud of her creative use of words.

Odd. But come to think of it, everyone who uses this cliché projects the same morbid pride. A similar cock-eyed vanity accompanies the use of “wake-up call,” “deck chairs on the Titanic,” “it’s a case of he said, she said,” “last time I checked,” “abundance of caution,” “shocks the conscience,” “got your back,” and, of course, “tone-deaf.” I don’t know why people who obviously care so deeply about the words they choose can’t see that their prize expressions have been in everyone’s mouth (ugly thought, isn’t it?) for many, many years. Maybe that’s a lack of hindsight.

It’s funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge.

But what about foresight? On the same day on which Fox was ventilating Sen. Shaheen’s inanities, the network’s B-list anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle said this about Iraq: “Questions remain about President Obama’s strategy, moving forward.” She said this as if it meant something. Well, I have some questions too, as I move forward in my own life. Don’t questions always remain, about anything? Then why bother to say so? If, however, she meant “doubt” or “skepticism,” why didn’t she say that? And isn’t strategy always about what you’re going to do in the future? If so, what is moving forward doing in that sentence? And what’s the grammar of the sentence, anyway? What is it that’s “moving”? Is it “strategy”? Is the president’s strategy moving? Or is it “questions” that are executing a peculiar forward motion? Yet the questions are supposed to remain. Tell me, Ms. Guilfoyle. But maybe someone else can tell me why moving forward has become such a popular cliché? Is it, like many other redundant expressions, just a way for insecure speakers to nail down their meaning — in this instance, to nail down the idea that, yes, I am talking about the future, OK, not the past? Y’know?

There are clichés, and then there are mistakes — continually repeated mistakes. The mistake of writing whacko when you mean wacko. The mistake of calling in the calvary. The mistake of using disinterested to mean uninterested. And, as I’ve told you before, there is the rising tide of squash.

I mean the confusion of that word, which normally evokes absurd images of fat things being flattened, with quash, which is naturally attached to no particular image but does mean something specific: to stop or repress. The judge quashed the indictment. The teacher quashed the question. The dictator quashed all debate. Try to picture indictments, questions, and debates being squashed. You can’t, and the harder you try, the sillier the incipient images become.

I would expect conservatives to conserve the quash-squash distinction. But they have become almost as good at moving forward as the progressives. In the conservative Daily Caller, July 21, we find this headline: “Top Kerry Aide Tries to Squash Claim of Anti-Fox News Bias by Lying to the Daily Caller.” The story is interesting, but the headline is bad by any standard except that of “Dog Bites Man.” One is supposed to picture a “Kerry aide” — an aide of the secretary of state, John Kerry — rushing over to a claim of bias, stomping on it, jumping on it, sitting on it, and finally lying about it, in a futile attempt to squash the thing. Yet the Daily Caller did not intend to be satirical. Or self-satirical.

Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase.

Neither did Attorney General Holder, in solemn remarks (he is always solemn) that announced his insertion of the federal government into the matter of a young man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Evidently this is the kind of thing that can be handled only by the intrepid intellect of the attorney general, and of the 40 FBI agents he dispatched to a little Midwestern town. But here is the LA Times report (August 11) on the terms in which Holder announced his intervention:

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that he believed the shooting in Ferguson “deserves fulsome review,” and he wanted the federal inquiry to “supplement, not supplant” the investigation by police in Missouri.

“Supplement, not supplant”: nothing wrong with that verbiage. “Review” is a little funky — funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge. Citizens were meant to understand that what Holder had in mind wasn’t an investigation, a legal proceeding, a crackdown, an inquisition, a Court of Star Chamber. No, it was merely a review, albeit a “fulsome” one. We’re used to this kind of guff. But where did fulsome come from? The only possible source is the attorney general’s feeling that a full review would be lacking somehow in fullness. Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase. So, as pompous people extend use into utilize, road into roadway, and famous into infamous, Holder put a new deck on the back of the house, and full was transformed into fulsome.

The problem is that fulsome does not mean full (any more than infamous means famous). Fulsome sometimes means “large” (as opposed to “full”), but its ordinary meaning is less predictable by people who want to use big words they don’t understand. One dictionary lists the synonyms of fulsome as “excessive, extravagant, overdone, immoderate, inordinate, unctuous, cloying . . . ” Granted, we can expect an investigation commissioned by the attorney general to be worthy of all these adjectives, because he himself is worthy. But that’s not what he meant to say. Critical self-examination is not his forte.

Nobody thought it was. Yet there is always a rumor that modern liberals, such as the people who write speeches for Holder and checks for Obama campaigns, are highly educated. From Plato’s Republic to this day, specialized education has been considered the qualification and justification for rulers in dirigiste systems of government — all of them instituted, of course, by allegedly intelligent and well-educated (as opposed to actually intelligent and well educated) people. The linguistic spoors left by President Obama and his crew make the credentials of the ruling class look less genuine than ever before.

Almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Moral fulsomeness is sometimes hard to distinguish from mere demagoguery. I don’t think I can make that distinction in the case of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. He it was who followed Holder’s lead by making a television address in which he repeatedly demanded vigorous “prosecution” of the cop involved in the Ferguson affair, a cop who hasn’t been charged with any offense. Nixon’s office later explained that by “prosecution” he really meant “investigation” (a distinction without a difference, from the demagogue or the tyrant’s point of view) but maintained that Nixon had no reason to retract anything in his statements.

I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,
Said cunning old Fury:
I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But speaking of public morals: I’m not one of those people who are addicted to the notion that “our country’s moral fabric is being eroded” — if only because that’s a mixed metaphor as well as a cliché. But I did get a kick out of the videos of Travis County Texas District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (and that’s a mouthful right there) experiencing the aftermath of an arrest for driving with her blood alcohol considerably over the legal limit. . . If nothing else, the videos give new life to the old expression “drunk as the lord.” (Drunk as the lord of the manor, you understand, not drunk as the Lord God, despite the fact that Judges 9:13 refers to wine as something that “cheereth God and man.”) All right, all right: I admit it: I’m not in favor of laws against drunk driving, unless it results in damage. And I know I’m in a small minority on that. But almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Even Gov. Rick Perry — he of the slack jaw and wandery eye — was acute enough to reflect on the fact that Lehmberg was the person charged with administering an agency concerned with ethics. So Perry threatened to veto the agency’s appropriation unless she resigned; when she didn’t, he carried out his threat and vetoed the bill. His reward was to be indicted by a grand jury for “abuse of office.” Believe me, I hate to defend Rick Perry, but the prosecutor seems challenged by the rudimentary distinction between use of office and abuse of office.

Nor is grotesque abuse of words simply a Texas problem. No one in the national administration appears capable of finding the right phrase. Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (“Chuck”) Hagel has been reprimanded by this column before, but he has not learned his lesson. This month, he babbled about the attempt to rescue martyred journalist Jim Foley from his crazed jihadi captors, calling it a “flawless operation” that had only one problem: it failed. When the rescuers came, Foley was in some other place. Hagel’s exact words were: “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation but the hostages were not there. We will do everything we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.”

But “everything” must not mean everything — in light of the administration’s stout refusal, in respect to the Foley case, to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to terrorists. That is what unanimous administration spokesmen declined to endorse. But tell me, if you can, where is Bowe Bergdahl today, and where are the five jihadis with whose freedom Bergdahl was not-ransomed on May 31? And tell me, while you’re at it, is Hagel still conducting an investigation about whether Bergdahl left his post or deserted it? Once more, there’s a problem of words, the distinctions between words, the meanings of words . . . Perhaps it’s a conceptual problem. Perhaps it’s important!

Oh, here’s an item. Bergdahl’s attorney has now told Reuters that Bergdahl “is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.” Maybe the president should make another speech congratulating Bergdahl on moving forward. Certainly it’s nice to hear that the young man is making plans for his life, not merely wandering around battle zones in Afghanistan. Somehow, though, I just can’t repress my feeling that it should be Jim Foley who’s moving on to the next chapter of his life. He was entitled to, if anyone was.

It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around.

But perhaps Mr. Hagel was having trouble coming to grips, linguistically, with his own emotions. Many people at the apex of power suffer in this way. There is, for example, the president’s confusion of the word heartbroken with such words as having fun figuring out how to bat little white balls into little tin cups. “We are all heartbroken,” Obama said on August 20, in a tense little speech about Foley’s murder. But those words must not have been quite right. Eight minutes later the broken hearted chief executive was giggling with his buddies on the golf course. You have to admire his powers of recuperation. I would giggle myself, at the absurdity of it all, if I could get the scene of Foley’s beheading out of my mind. The president must have greater strength of character than I have.

The most absurd episode of the month — again, linguistically — was a series of events in Montana, in which sitting Senator John Walsh (Dem.) was found to have plagiarized a 14-page so-called paper submitted as part of a credentialing process in a two-bit graduate program. Walsh and his friends justified his stupidity in many ways: by claiming that he had done nothing wrong (he had used 96 footnotes!); by noting that he wasn’t, by nature, an academic; by claiming that his “mistake” was “unintentional”; by saying that he had served in Iraq, that one of his colleagues in Iraq had killed himself, that he (Walsh) had not killed himself but had been the victim of hundreds of enemy attacks (later reduced to one attack); by suggesting that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though whatever he had was never diagnosed in exactly that way . . . While at school, Walsh, like his president, was known for his devotion to golf.

Finally the senator surrendered his candidacy, and the Democrats came up with another nominee, one Amanda Curtis, probably their worst possible choice. I felt comfortable analyzing Walsh, a lantern-jawed jock who drifted from one official position to another. His mishaps with words practically analyzed themselves. Curtis is different. It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around. Walsh’s supposed thesis paper was a tissue of mild, mainstream clichés, many of them plagiarized. Curtis’s genuine video blog is an exhibit of left-“liberal” thought, unfiltered and unembarrassed. But what is its cause or referent in the real world? That remains unknown. She might as well be reacting to the climate on Mars.

To return to the subject of the educated classes: Can you guess this candidate’s occupation? You’ve got it: she’s a teacher.




Share This


Recreating the Unique

 | 

“Show business is two parts. There’s the show part, and there’s the business part.”
— James Brown

In Get on Up, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrates that he is the master of both. A showman so passionate about his music that he becomes known as the Godfather of Soul, he is also a businessman savvy enough to figure out that the profits in the music business goes to the people who control the gate, not to the ones playing the music onstage. Brown figures out how to be in charge of both.

Determined to play the Apollo and produce an album that can capture the electricity of the live performance, he tells his skeptical manager Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), “I’ll put up the money. I’ll take the risk.” He uses the power of radio to promote his concerts and records. Payola — the practice of paying deejays to play and promote a record — is illegal, but advertising a live concert is not. “They’ll play my records, and then they’ll tell people where they can hear me play,” he explains enthusiastically to Bart in the film. And the deejays do. Live at the Apollo becomes Brown’s first breakout album.

Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

By all accounts, James Brown (1933–2006) did not have an easy life. Born during the Depression in a small South Carolina town, he was abandoned by both his parents and lived, at least for a while, in his aunt’s brothel. He spent time in prison during his youth and again as an adult. His official biography is somewhat sketchy, with different stories told by different biographers and people who knew him. Brown himself, with his little-boy perspective of the grown-up actions going on around him, probably didn’t understand what was really true. Consequently, the traditional biopic with a typical beginning (childhood), middle (the struggle to get started), and end (the ultimate successes and defeats) simply would not work for this film. Instead, director Tate Taylor presents the story almost as triggered memories. The film jumps around from scene to scene and decade to decade. It begins in 1988 with an almost psychotic Brown brandishing a rifle at room full of strangers, then quickly changes to a 1964 Brown preparing to share the stage with the Rolling Stones, and changes just as quickly to a little-boy Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) playing tag with his mother in 1939. Then it’s back again to the ’60s and a USO show in Vietnam and then to the ’50s and back to his father brandishing a rifle at his mother. For a while it seems dizzyingly unfocused and uncontrolled.

Midway through the film, however, as the band is practicing for a performance in New Orleans, a saxophonist complains about how the drum section comes in during the song’s arrangement. Shouldn’t it start with the downbeat? he suggests. Brown asks him, “Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” The musician nods. “Well if it sounds right and it feels right, then it is right,” Brown declares. Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

To reinforce his point, Brown taps on a snare and asks, “What’s that?” “A drum,” the musician responds. “And what’s that?” Brown asks, pointing to a bass. “A guitar,” the puzzled musician replies. “No, that’s a drum, “ Brown corrects him. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing to a saxophone, “and that,” pointing to the piano. “A drum?” the musician replies. “That’s right. It’s all drums.”

Every sound anchors the music. Every sound provides a foundational beat. You could highlight them separately — first the guitar, then the brass, then thedrums — and you might be able to hear each part more clearly, but it wouldn’t have the same power as Brown’s arrangement does. It wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t feel right.

First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats.

The scenes in the film are arranged with a similar foundation. They don’t necessarily make sense by themselves, and they may or may not be factually true. But they’re all story, just as the instruments are all drums. When experienced as a whole, the scenes sound right, and they feel right.

One of the more unsettling scenes of the film occurs in the week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bart encourages Brown to cancel their concert in Boston, but Brown insists on keeping the date. The tension between the mostly black audience, right on the edge of rioting, and the mostly white police officers, right on the edge of using their billy clubs, is eerily like the situation in Ferguson this week. As audience members climb onto the stage to dance next to Brown, chaos looms and the police ready themselves for action. Brown’s calm reaction made me think of the way George Banks (James Stewart) reacts to the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life. First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. He gives them what they think they want. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats, reminding them, “Everyone wants to see the show. Come on now, let’s represent. Let’s show them.” And they do.

Chadwick Boseman is making quite a career for himself by playing inspirational black men. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 was phenomenal (see my review in Liberty). He portrays Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Mack in Draft Day later this year. Boseman succeeds in such films because he pays attention to the nuances. In 42 it was the way his fingers danced as he prepared to steal a base. In Get on Up the magic is again in his hands as he captures the way Brown held his at an angle when he walked. His feet pivot and glide across the floor as he dances onstage in Brown’s signature mashed potato, and he bounces easily into Brown’s signature splits. His raspy voice and lazy diction sometimes make it difficult to understand what he’s saying, but that too was Brown’s style. I hope Boseman gets a chance to create an original character in a romantic comedy or an action film, next.

Get on Up is not as good as Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, 2004) or Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, 2005). I don’t think it quite captures the influence Brown had on the music industry over six decades, and it leaves a lot of stories unfinished. But it is a good film that is worth the price of a theater ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Get on Up," directed by Tate Taylor, executive-produced by Mick Jagger. Imagine Entertainment / Jagged Films, 2014, 139 minutes.



Share This


The Absurdity of Intellectual “Property”

 | 

This is a response to Kyle Scott’s essay, published in Liberty on August 16.

Kyle Scott’s case for copyright is interesting, and he should be commended for making it so clearly and intelligently. For him, as for many other libertarians, what people write is their own property, like any other kind of property, and they have a natural right to keep it. Government is merely the protector, not the source of their right. All this can be deduced from the natural rights theory most importantly exemplified by John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.

Unfortunately, so concerned is Mr. Scott with his line of deductive reasoning, so clear, so forcible, so all-sufficient, that he never notices what a strange kind of property he’s talking about. Copyright is property that stops and starts whenever the government starts or stops it. A few decades ago, it lasted for 28 years, with renewal for another 28 years, if you mixed your labor with the thing a second time, by filling out a form asking for renewal. Now it continues for 70 years after your death or, in the case of “work for hire” — work performed, for instance, in the employ of the Disney Corporation, which hired you to mix your labor on its account — for a whopping 90 years after the original publication of whatever you wrote or otherwise created.

Copyright is an invention of government, and it has fluctuated at the arbitrary whim of government.

I have no doubt that many other alterations in the lifetime of this weirdly fluctuating property will occur, as congressmen receive yet more campaign funds from yet more wealthy holders of copyright. As things stand today, however, the heirs of a 20-year-old who writes something, anything, today, and survives to the age of 80, can manifest themselves in the year 2144, demanding that you get their permission to republish this something, anything, that was produced so long ago by so callow a youth. And if the heirs are not around, in the sense of being visible, you will have to find them, or show that you tried. Then, miracle of miracles, in the year 2145, the troublesome property will vanish. The copyright will have expired, a mere 70 years after its author’s expiration, and you will be free to publish it a thousand times over, if you want.

Now really, does this look like property? Do farms and houses vanish 70 years after the deaths of their creators, unless some government action resuscitates them?

Historically, copyright is an invention of government, and it has fluctuated at the arbitrary whim of government. Mr. Scott would doubtless argue that this has nothing to do with the basic issue, which is one of individual right, right eventually recognized and protected, however imperfectly, by government. He might carry his reasoning to the obvious, though absurd, extreme of insisting that anything I write and perhaps toss into the street should be guaranteed to me and my heirs forever — that the heirs of Sophocles and King Solomon, no doubt very numerous by now, should be tracked down and reimbursed for every republication of these authors’ works. Oh no, no need for consultation of Athenian or Israelite statutes of inheritance, which knew nothing of copyright. Principle alone will guide us.

But in truth, copyrighted “property” is no property at all. The assumption that it is property is fraught with as many evils as St. Paul attributed to the love of money.

Everyone has a right to own a house, to sell it, or to pass it to his heirs. But the house doesn’t vanish 70 years after his death, or whenever Congress passes another law. Nor, to get closer to the root of the problem, is the house an abstract title to the legal authority to reproduce a house, the ownership of which title can require expert knowledge to identify after a fairly short time. No, there is the house, at 400 S. Main Street, and there are the people inhabiting the house or paying rent on it to a readily identifiable owner. A house is completely different from the reproduction of a house — or, still more abstractly, the right to reproduce it. Your property right in your house is in no way diminished by my building a house that looks exactly like it. Furthermore, you can’t just build a house and move away and abandon it, and expect other people to run and find you and pay you money for the right to live in it — much less the right to build a house in Dubuque or Delphi that’s exactly like that house. No, other people are eventually going to mix their labor with your house — use it, maintain it, claim it for their own. Even in the most rights-conscious communities, if you keep leaving your grandfather’s gold watch on the sidewalk, someone else is going to pick it up, wind it, clean it, and appropriate it, and no jury will convict him for doing so. Nor should it, all cookie-cutter libertarian theory to the contrary.

The vast majority of copyrights are of no value at all, and honoring them constitutes an enormous tax on productive people.

Now, a copyright is not like a house, and it is not like a gold watch. It is nothing so real as those things. In Mr. Scott’s conception, and that of the United States government, it is an absolute right to keep other people from copying something, for the sole reason that you produced it. You could say the same thing about — pardon my taste for low imagery — your garbage, or the stuff you put in your toilet. Copyright, in this conception, is an absolute guarantee that no one can copy your words, even if you abandoned them, even if you sold somebody the paper they were written on and walked away and didn’t bother to leave your address. Even if you gave the paper away. Even if you left it lying in the gutter. Even if it stayed in the gutter, or in the moldering archives of a vanity press, for seventy years after your death.

Now, if I sold you a house by claiming that Frank Lloyd Wright had built it, and he didn’t build it, but I built it myself, you could sue me for fraud — but the Wright estate could not. I had every right to build and sell the house, even if it looked the same as one of Wright’s houses; I just didn’t have the right to claim that he built it and charge you more accordingly. But if I sold you a laundry list, claiming that Wright had written it, and he did write it, and you reproduced it, only without the permission of his estate, the estate should be able to sue you successfully, according to the argument of Mr. Scott and many other libertarians. What’s the difference? It isn’t a difference of natural right, that’s for sure; it’s a difference of political enactments that have become so naturalized in libertarian thought that rationalizations are found for them.

It never occurs to dogmatists of copyright that valuable works could be protected by invoking laws against fraud. More important, it never occurs to them that the vast majority of copyrights are of no value at all, and that honoring them constitutes an enormous tax on productive people. I know scholars who spend much of their lives trying to trace the copyright owners of works that are almost 100 years old, works that are of no value except to the hapless researchers and a handful of readers. They are paying a pointless tax to a ridiculous law, a law that Mr. Scott would presumably make still more ridiculous by extending it to eternity.

It isn’t a difference of natural right; it’s a difference of political enactments that have become so naturalized in libertarian thought that rationalizations are found for them.

If labor has anything to do with the creation of property — which it doesn’t, contrary to Mr. Scott’s faith in Lockean dogmas, according to which I can’t pick up a kitten in the street without asking who mixed his labor with the land that sustained the kitten’s progenitors, all the way back to Noah — there are a great many more researchers and readers who have a more substantial property right to the stuff they research and read than the authors who once excreted it. If you don’t believe that, try mixing your labor with John Locke’s prose.

Mr. Scott is patently an intelligent person, yet his claims for copyright are patently absurd. This is an observation that could be made in respect to many radical libertarian arguments, particularly those whose results turn out to be, rather ironically, highly conservative. By Scott’s logic, high schools shouldn’t just be teaching Shakespeare; they should be supporting an eternal Shakespeare Trust, providing dividends for his millions of heirs, any one of whom could veto republication of his works, as a matter of right.

This prompts the question: under what circumstances are intelligent persons most likely to make absurd statements, without realizing their absurdity? Answer: When they are in love. And so it is: Mr. Scott — again, like too many other libertarians — is in love with an ideology and cannot see the absurdity to which his supposedly radical position leads him: the absurdity of endorsing, on the ground of individual rights, a massive governmental creation and subsidization of crony “property.”




Share This


Protecting the Universe

 | 

Do we really need another movie about superheroes protecting the universe from power-hungry villains? Probably not. And yet here we are with another space western, and this one is pretty good.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about as formulaic as they come. The comparison with the first Star Wars is inevitable: with an earnest young protagonist (Chris Pratt) who loses his family early in the film and a sexy female protagonist (Zoe Saldana) who can hold her own in a fight. It sports a giant, loveable Wookiee-like creature (a tall tree voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only be understood by his cynical, wisecracking Han Solo-like best friend (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). Guardians has also its share of eccentric intergalactic traders, thugs, and black marketeers as well as bad guys who blow up planets and want to control the galaxy.

The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well.

Nevertheless, there is something fun and endearing about Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise, but without being a parody or a carbon copy. It’s more like the Star Wars sequel we’ve been longing to see, and it’s backed by ’80s songs that will make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. (In fact, the soundtrack album, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1,” reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart.)

Peter Quill (Pratt) is a space-age scavenger-for-hire who was abducted by aliens on the night of his mother’s death. He works for low-level space criminals, drives a tricked-out muscle car of a spaceship, and still listens to the ’80s music mix his mother made for him just before she died. More Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, he faces danger with sassy aplomb and power-kicks aliens in time to the tunes blasting from his vintage Sony Walkman. His life is endangered when he takes possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by numerous sinister buyers, and he ends up joining forces with Groot (the tree character), Rocket (the raccoon), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands.

That’s about it. The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well, largely because of the chemistry of the characters Quill and Rocket and because of that perfect soundtrack. Director James Gunn explained the importance of the music to the film and the characters: "The music . . . is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me, except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

Yep — just like you and me. Guarding the galaxy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy," directed by James Gunn. Columbia Pictures/Walt Disney/ Marvel Studios, 2014, 121 minutes.



Share This


Legal Predation

 | 

Alabama has not escaped an abuse suffered elsewhere in the country, one reminiscent of lawyers’ trolling for plaintiffs in their nightly TV ads. The Opelika-Auburn News has carried stories about a form letter (copied online by the newspaper) that local businesses have received from a law firm in Montgomery. (I have also had a brief conversation with an attorney for some of the victims.)

The letter threatens a federal lawsuit on behalf of not-yet-specified plaintiffs for not-yet-specified violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act unless the targeted firm agrees to an out-of-court settlement. The letter expressly says that a suitable settlement would cover legal fees. The amount later suggested, typically a few thousand dollars, apparently turns out to be small enough to persuade some victims to settle to avoid risking further and possibly great expense and trouble.

Such predation is one more example of using or threatening government power to redistribute wealth away from its real producers. It is also an example both of quasi-deception and of regarding business firms as fair game that just exists, almost automatically, to be exploited in various ways as might occur to somebody.




Share This


In Defense of Intellectual Property

 | 

Libertarianism can be different things to different people. Trying to define it, or characterize it, will leave some libertarians at odds with one another. What follows will isolate me from most libertarians. It is a defense of intellectual property rights (IPR) based on the thesis that there is no normative distinction between IPR and real property rights (RPR). I will use Butler Shaffer's short polemic for the Mises Institute, "A Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property," as my primary foil as it encapsulates many of the arguments against IPR that libertarian thinkers embrace.

Where Shaffer ends I will begin. At the end of his polemic he boils down his rejection of IPR on the ground that a libertarian cannot endorse a right that is created and enforced by the state. The premise that IPR are created by the state is false, while the premise that IPR should be rejected because they are enforced by the state is unpersuasive. This essay will unfold in three parts, with the first demonstrating why Shaffer’s first premise is false, the second section demonstrating why his second premise is unpersuasive, and the third section confronting other objections to IPR.

Section I: Intellectual Property Rights are not created by the state

The only means through which one may defend RP, and not IP, is to say that the manner in which man exerts ownership over RP has nothing to do with his mind. RP and IP are both products of the same process, even though they take different forms. It doesn’t require a great imagination to see this, but because it is an unfamiliar formulation I will elaborate by means of a familiar source: John Locke. A Lockean justification of private property provides a sound defense of IPR by building through a property of conscience.

Unless we assume that man’s arms and legs move without cognition, man’s labor is a product of his mind.

In chapter 5 of his Second Treatise on Government Locke gives his seminal account of property rights. It runs thus: man alone is in possession of himself, and through his drive and ingenuity he extends his dominion beyond himself. Man is in possession of himself because no other individual gave him his will, conscience, or abilities; thus, no one else can exert dominion over him except that to which he consents.

Man takes possession of property when it lies in common and he mixes his labor with it. Simply put, if there is unowned property available, and someone takes it out of its natural state by mixing his labor with it, that property becomes his so long as there is enough left over for others to sustain themselves, for that man has no right to deprive others of providing for themselves. An acorn becomes mine if it is lying on the ground or staying in the tree, and I take it out of its natural state by mixing my labor with it — plucking it from the tree or picking it up from the ground. The mixing of labor makes it mine because that acorn is no longer what it had been. My labor made it something that it had not previously been, by virtue of my efforts. This means that nobody else can stake a claim to it without depriving me of the fruits (or nuts, in this case) of my labor.

The Lockean argument gets a bit more complicated, but in terms of how common property becomes private, this is it. That is why Locke and his intellectual heirs consider private property paramount for the preservation of liberty, for there is no real distinction between man and his property, since property is nothing more than the extension and physical manifestation of a man's liberty.

As it relates to IP, a Lockean position is easy to extract. Unless we assume that man’s arms and legs move without cognition, man’s labor is a product of his mind. Without cognition I would not cut down trees and build a shelter, nor would I engage in any productive activity that would lead to property ownership. Whether it’s writing a book or building a widget, property originates from man’s will and ability to produce.

If the process by which IP is protected is conducted poorly, that is simply the government doing a necessary job poorly and not evidence that the job is unnecessary.

James Madison has a more expansive, and sometimes confusing, articulation of property rights, but he understands them as Locke does. Madison uses property to describe what man possesses within himself (what Locke would call will or labor), and those external objects that become man's possessions through the mixing of himself with them (land, hogs, etc.). This formulation is articulated by Madison in a 1792 essay entitled "Property." Madison writes:

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions. Where there is an excess of liberty, the effect is the same, tho' from an opposite cause. Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

We may conclude that protecting property, broadly understood, is the sole object of government for both Madison and Locke.

Somebody stealing my IP is the same as someone stealing my RP, particularly if IP is what I use to make a living. If the market for my book is 10,000 people, then someone who resells my book, or makes 10,000 copies it and sells them without my permission, has shrunk the market for me, the originator and creator of the book. This is no different from someone breaking into my shop and stealing 10,000 widgets and selling them on the black market when the market for the widget is 10,000 people. In either instance my ability to make a living through my labor has been denied by someone who illegitimately used the product of my labor without my consent. In simple terms: my right to life, liberty, and property has been denied. Nothing gives someone else the right to capitalize on my labor without my consent, for without my labor that product would not be in existence. These considerations give me sole ownership of the property if we follow the Lockean formulation of property rights.

Section II: Rights and the State

It is not a defect of IP that it needs the government to enforce it; it is the fault of libertarians if they cannot accommodate a necessary and just idea, such as IP, without government enforcement. If libertarians reject IP on the ground that it needs government to enforce it, then we have not evaluated IP on its merits but merely through a heuristic defined by ideology rather than logic.

If the process by which IP is protected is conducted poorly, that is simply the government doing a necessary job poorly and not evidence that the job is unnecessary. The focus should be on how to correct what’s wrong, not how to eradicate protections for property. Government is legitimate when it protects life, liberty, and property, and illegitimate when it does not. That does not mean that life, liberty, and property are illegitimate ends when the government does a poor job protecting them. To reject the ends because the means are faulty is a logical error.

Furthermore, libertarians who embrace RP cannot reject IP on enforcement grounds, for RP also requires government enforcement. Perhaps in idealized settings, or at least in smaller, more communal settings than the current nation-state model, RP would not require the government for protection. But we don’t live in those scenarios and must therefore recognize the reality of the situation. We can certainly debate the degree to which the government protects RP well, the means through which it does so, and the externalities associated with government protection of RP, but I don’t think anyone would say that if the police in every city were shuttered up tomorrow, crime would be reduced significantly the following day. In today’s reality, RP requires government protection just as IP does. Thus, unless one is willing to reject RP on these grounds one cannot also reject IP for the same reason.

Section III: Remaining Objections and Rebuttals

Shaffer objects to those who say that IPR promote creativity by protecting the products of one’s creative endeavors. It is true that IPR do not make me more creative, but IPR protection may provide incentives for creative activities rather than other activities that would be more profitable. If I am a musician who is unable to profit from my music because others can steal my ideas, I will have to find another job. This doesn’t prevent me from being creative, but it does reduce my incentive to do so and it impedes my ability to dedicate the necessary time to creative endeavor.

Shaffer uses the Roman aqueducts and the Egyptian pyramids as examples of human achievements in ingenuity and creativity that occurred without IPR. What Shaffer fails to acknowledge is that these were state-sponsored projects that would not have been realized without financing and organization from a large state. Similarly, while Michelangelo did not require IPR to produce his art he did require a wealthy patronage to support him and his products financially. IPR is one reason we no longer have to rely upon a patronage system in the arts and literature.

We must not deny producers security in their life, liberty, and property for fear that the authority we must rely upon to do so may turn against it.

Shaffer endorses the claim by Paul Feyerabend that “science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise” to demonstrate that an open exchange of ideas is beneficial for scientific and artistic achievement. But the passage from Feyerabend goes on to stipulate that “theoretically anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.” Shaffer conveniently ignores the operative term “theoretically” and thus fails to explore the reality of our world and defaults to the theoretical without acknowledging having done so. Shaffer, and all those who endorse stripping producers of their ownership rights, should recognize that producers have bills to pay and those who steal their products deprive them of their ability to provide for themselves through the outcomes of their labor. Moreover, thieves do exist, and having a means to guard against them is necessary albeit unfortunate.

Conclusion

In practical and theoretical terms there is no meaningful distinction between real property and intellectual property. If libertarians accept government protections for real property then they must too accept them for intellectual property if consistency is to be maintained.

I am sympathetic to the concern that when we ask the government to protect us it enfeebles us potentially and opens the door for the government to inch into other areas of our lives. But, the potential does not have to be realized if we do not permit it. It is possible to restrain and confine the government to those means and ends that we think most appropriate. Thus, we must not deny producers security in their life, liberty, and property for fear that the authority we must rely upon to do so may turn against it. We must instead opt for just government rather than reject it outright until such a time comes that we live in a world of entirely honest men and women.

With the permission of the author, a reply to this essay has been invited from Wayland Hunter; it is available here.




Share This


ISIS and the Anarchists

 | 

Some of our best friends at Liberty are libertarian anarchists; others are libertarian supporters of minimal government. I’m in the second camp. (Long-suffering people can refer to my articles in the July 2013 and December 2013 issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.) So I wonder what anarchists think about the ISIS affair.

Here is a private religious organization that raised its own military force, and then devoted it to murdering and torturing all who failed to obey its creed. Such things are not unexampled in Islam; recall the great Mahdist revolt in 19th-century Africa. Some religions waited hundreds of years to take over a state; the original Muslim movement erected a state at once, and that is what ISIS has been doing — transforming itself from a private movement into “the caliphate.”

I imagine that in analyzing this metathesis of private organizations, anarchists will do what they usually do: retell the long story of state aggression, comparing its horrors to the benefits of private organizations that remain private. They will emphasize that ISIS intervened in a situation destabilized by the United States and other governments. They will observe that ISIS acquired its weapons from those left in Iraq by the United States government. So any way you look, it will just be state, state, state.

But that’s my own point. Even if a state is destabilized, other states will take its place, and its resources. Some of them (including once-private organizations, such as, for instance, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the radical Islamists) may be shaped by the worst private emotions — intolerance, sadism, the desire to kill and torture. To a regrettable degree in human history, the gratification of these emotions has taken precedence over the libertarian desire to mind one’s own business, participate in trade, and learn interesting things from one’s neighbors. How do you protect yourself against such vicious but popular passions, except with your own state? Ask the Kurds.

Nevertheless, I’d like to know what anarchists really think about this ISIS thing.




Share This


Dishonest Impositions on Business

 | 

In “Lying as a Research Tool” (Liberty, April 2013) I cited a study of employers’ possible discrimination by race as suggested by fictitious applicants’ names on fictitious résumés. Because such studies are remote from my own main interests, I was not then fully aware of how numerous and respected they have become.

One new example, not yet published in an academic journal, has received prominent and enthusiastic attention in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend issue of 17–18 May 2014 and in Auburn University’s online media. The researchers responded to job announcements by emailing thousands of phony résumés of recent college graduates. The fictitious applicants differed in college majors, recent employment or unemployment, internships, prestigiousness of home address, and typically white or typically African-American name. One conclusion was that experience as an intern before graduation improved one’s chances of being invited to a job interview.

The Southern Economic Journal of July 2014 publishes a similarly conducted study of landlords’ possible discrimination according to whether a prospective tenant’s name and writing style suggested (to use the authors’ categories) a white person, a well-assimilated Hispanic, or a recent immigrant from Latin America.

The authors of such studies cite dozens of similar ones, commenting on the particular questions investigated and on the effectiveness of the particular deceptions employed — but little if at all on their dishonesty. I discussed one of the studies mentioned above by email and then in person with one of its coauthors. What happens when an employer offers a job interview? Answer: the fictitious applicant replies that he or she has meanwhile accepted some other job. Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means, using those very words.

Sissela Bok’s Lying (1978) included a chapter on “Deceptive Social Science Research.” Bok expressed dismay at her examples (though not, of course, at the not-yet-familiar deceptions described here). One reason such deceptions are objectionable is that they create noise in the job and rental markets, possibly disadvantaging genuine applicants. They suggest unconcern about the additional burdens, slight in the individual case but significant in the aggregate, imposed on business, especially small business. The authors presumptuously call such studies, done by correspondence or occasionally with hired actors, “audits” (an “audit” being an official or formal investigation of someone’s accounts or activities to uncover possible error or worse).

Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means.

But why do they consider business firms fair game for such targeting, almost as if they just existed automatically? Actually, no one is obliged to be in business at all and hire employees or offer rental housing, let alone to endure just anyone’s intrusive impositions.

One ground for hope is that such experiments will destroy their own effectiveness if they become familiar enough to arouse the suspicion and noncooperation of the unwitting guinea pigs. By then, sadly, the general presumption of honesty and trustworthiness essential to a free society and market economy will have become further eroded. Many TV ads and the assertions and promises of politicians are already doing damage enough.

At least in their own profession, academic researchers should uphold standards of honesty.




Share This


Life in the ’Hood

 | 

I’m always a little skeptical about a film that relies too much on a gimmick. Can the film stand on its own? That’s what I want to know. I’m happy to say that Boyhood, one of the most anticipated indie films of the century (okay, the century is only 14 years old) can indeed stand on its own. The gimmick is this: instead of using multiple actors or makeup and prosthetics to portray the same character at different ages, director Richard Linklater decided to film this movie over the course of 12 years, while using the same actors. The result is a series of 12 vignettes chronicling the experiences of a sometimes-single mother (Patricia Arquette); her two children, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater); and their father (Ethan Hawke).

Linklater is one of the most innovative directors of the independent film movement. His sprawling, virtually plotless Slacker (1991) gave rise to the term that many used to define a generation. A Scanner Darkly experimented with new techniques that turned live action into animation, while Bernie experimented with combining documentary and scripted narrative. Several of his films take place in one 24-hour period (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, to name a few.) So why not experiment with the idea of taking 12 years to film a movie that covers 12 years?

Movie geeks have been waiting eagerly for the release of this film. I saw it on opening night in a gigantic downtown theater that was virtually filled to capacity. I was not disappointed.

Much can happen over the course of 12 years. People change. Sometimes they become famous. Sometimes they fall into addictions or ill health. Sometimes they die. Kids who seem cute and precocious at age five may become dull and leaden actors at age ten or 12. (I suspect the producers of Modern Family have serious “buyers’ regret” over the choice of Aubrey Anderson-Emmons as Lily — but how could they have known when she was a cute little toddler that she would grow up without an ounce of acting ability?)

Linklater could not have known, for example, that last year’s Oscar for Best Picture would go to a film called Twelve Years a Slave, making it necessary for him to change his working title, Twelve Years, to the more generic and certainly less interesting Boyhood, in order to avoid confusion. He also didn’t know that Arquette would end up starring in a hit TV show (Medium) or that his daughter Lorelei would lose interest in the project and beg him to kill off her character (I won’t tell you how that family tiff was resolved). Nor did he anticipate that it would take nearly three hours to tell the story sufficiently. Or that Ellar Coltrane would turn out to be exactly the right actor to stand at the heart of Boyhood.

Like many stories that are told through the eyes of a child (To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane, for example), Boyhood is not a kid’s flick but a grown up story that is given additional poignancy by the innocence of its young protagonist. Mom (Arquette) is a complex character who is trying to create a good life for her children. During the first half of the vignettes she is working her way through college and graduate school. But she makes terrible choices regarding men. Divorced from her children’s father, she goes through a series of abusive relationships and doesn’t seem able to rise above whatever it is that attracts her to this kind of man. The children suffer from her mistakes even as they benefit from her courage to leave a bad relationship. It’s a fascinating character study, and Arquette plays it just right.

The Texas setting is just right, too. Linklater hails from Houston, and he takes his audience on a virtual tour of the state as the family moves from place to place. Some of the locations are absolutely gorgeous.

Boyhood is much more than a filmmakers’ gimmick. The story works, the casting works, and the concept works. The film is long, but it is engaging, believable, and well worth watching. Once again, Linklater has created a winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "Boyhood," directed by Richard Linklater. IFC Productions, 2014, 165 minutes.



Share This

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.