We Need More People in Government Like This

A blog reader sent a message to her congressman, Tim Walz, complaining about SOPA, the bill that aims to protect intellectual property rights online that has sent many internet folks into a tizzy.

Here is the response she got from Congressman Walz:

…SOPA approaches the problem as a criminal matter when in fact, study upon study shows that online piracy is best dealt with as an economic matter. Instead of using the Justice department as a sledgehammer amongst the delicate weeds of the internet, corporations must embrace the free market and adapt their business models to compete in a new reality. The ability to adapt and compete is the cornerstone of capitalism, we should promote this rather than rushing to insert ourselves in the market in ways that could severe disrupt internet commerce and progress.

Now, I don’t 100 percent agree with this answer, but I love the spirit of it – especially coming from a Democrat!  That last sentence sounds like the argument you would get over faculty lunch in the University of Chicago department of economics.

I almost always believe in free markets as the solution to problems, but this one is tricky.  There are not a whole lot of things that I think governments are particularly good at doing, but protecting property rights is at or near the top of that list.  As Greg Mankiw so aptly writes on his blog:

The anti-SOPA crowd argues that this is a matter of basic liberty. But it’s not. In a free society, you don’t have the freedom to steal your neighbor’s property. And that should include intellectual property. Moreover, it is the function of the state to enforce those rights. We don’t leave it up to civil litigation to protect property rights (although that is part of the solution). We give the state substantial powers to stop theft. Just as owners of tangible personal property have good cause to call for a police force and a system of criminal courts, owners of intellectual property have good cause to ask the state to stop those who would infringe on their rights.

Still, my hat goes off to Congressman Walz.  I hope that he will keep the answer he gave on SOPA in his top drawer; with just a minor reworking he could use the last sentence of his response for many other constituent inquiries.

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  1. Mikko says:

    Online piracy (in any form), in an economic sense, seems like a perfect example of a free-riding problem. If tax-evasion was as widespread as copyright infringement, would anyone seriously suggest that “government just needs to adapt” and that “public services need to reinvent their business model”?

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    • Mike B says:

      Show me that this free riding has in any way reduced the supply of creative ideas and maybe you have a point.

      I say that the better argument is that these sorts of creative works have become a public good (they are non-rival and defacto non-exclusive). If production of said goods were to decline, the solution would be to use the tax system to subsudize their creation.

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    • Anthony Halsell says:

      Yes. I absolutely would suggest that government would need to adapt and re-invent their business model if tax-evasion was a widespread problem.

      The government’s power is derived from the consent of the governed. If a significant enough portion of the governed aren’t complying with government regulations, the answer is not to beat them harder or more frequently, but to evolve.

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    • Travis says:

      I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but there’s huge huge debates going on right now about fairness of the tax code.

      In essence, people arguing that others not paying their faire share (those earning money in the top 1% / those earning primarily from capital gains) are arguing that those people are free-riding.

      And the conversation right now is about fixing it, at least from many people’s point of view.

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  2. Joe says:

    This one actually isn’t all that tricky.

    Someone who suffers legitimate harm shouldn’t be allowed to buy a law outlining whatever enforcement methods they deem appropriate.

    Make your case with reasoned argument instead of lobbying dollars and maybe the rest of country will take you more seriously (you the industry groups, not you Freakonomics folks).

    Trying to buy a draconian law just makes you creepy.

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  3. alex in chicago says:

    Isn’t the biggest problem with these anti-piracy suits, litigation, and prosecution that they amount to a witch hunt? I would say less than 1% of violators get caught, but when they do, they get massive fines, maybe even jailtime. In other words, 1 persons life is ruined once a year to “make an example of them”. Wouldn’t a traffic-ticket-like system work much better? Everyone violates the speed limit at some point, but we don’t bankrupt them for doing it.

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  4. martin tetaz says:

    Actually there are two different kinds of property rights, depending on whether goods rivalize in consumption or not
    Unless someone come up with novel experimental evidence showing that sites such as megaupload or the like reduces the production of intelectual goods, the efficient rule of princing should be to equalize price and marginal cost. Since the later is roughly zero, its agains efficiency to block or penalize on line sharing

    Yours
    Martin

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  5. Mike B says:

    In response to Greg Mankiw, first of all “Intellectual Property” have about as much standing as property as Corporations have standing as people. It’s a term like “Death Tax” that’s meant to re-frame the debate in favor of private ownership of thoughts and ideas that were previously held to belong to society at large. How about I entertain your plans to update copyright enforcement for the 21st century when you entertain updating the concept of copyright itself for the same.

    Second even if it is the government’s duty to enforce property rights, I don’t think many people would support censorship of information about committing crime, tools that could potentially be used to commit crime and depictions of of the commission of crime. People have made arguments for all three in the past, and they have been soundly rejected as not only an infringement of our freedoms, but also being largely ineffective.

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  6. pawnman says:

    Neil Gaiman gave a great interview where he discussed how people pirating his work has actually increased his sales. The analogy he makes is this: think of your favorite author. You own all his (or her) books. Often in hardback. You pre-order their books. You watch the movies made from their books, if they exist, to see if it lives up to the written work. Now, how were you introduced to that author? Did you walk into a bookstore and buy a book, sight unseen? Unlikely (not impossible).

    The argument that piracy hurts the entertainment industry is a common one, and it seems to make logical sense on the surface. But the reality is, someone pirating music or books or movies was not likely to purchase those things anyway. Study after study has shown that there is a lack of correlation between online piracy and revenues. In fact, many of the most pirated artists are also the most successful, and many independent artists release their music for free online to generate interest in the real money-making endeavor, the concert.

    Finally, even if you agree that internet piracy is bad, and that it needs to be stopped…SOPA is just about the worst way to go about it. If you have a link to Google on your website, you can be shutdown by SOPA, because I can use Google to find pirated materials. Worse, the way they shut down your site leaves the internet muddled and unworkable. Redirecting the DNS system is what hackers do in order to spoof websites. It shouldn’t be the way the government deals with piracy.

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    • James says:

      “Did you walk into a bookstore and buy a book, sight unseen? Unlikely…”

      Not unlikely at all. In fact, that’s how I came to buy most of the books I’ve bought over the years, from browsing in the bookstore, seeing a cover blurb that looked interesting, skimming a few pages, maybe knowing that the publisher has a track record of finding good new authors, then making a decision to buy. Second most common is from finding one or two works by an author in the public library (which paid for the copies it has), then seeking out more. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of (non-text or technical) books I’ve bought through some other source.

      Likewise with music: many recordings were first purchased through browsing (in the days of actual music stores) or by hearing them on radio (which of course pays broadcast royalties). I can again count the number of live performances I’ve attended on one hand.

      Indeed, from my point of view this is one of the worst side-effects of the internet, that it has so drastically decreased the opportunities for the discovery of new authors from such browsing.

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  7. Nosybear says:

    I find your amazement that a Democrat would talk about free markets interesting. Republican bloviation aside, most of us liberals are believers in capitalism and free markets, we merely believe the benefits of capitalistic enterprise should accrue to society as well as to capitalists. We generally tend to believe in the benefits of exploratory capitalism, finding new ways of doing things, innovating, competing, rather than exploitative capitalism. Put another way, liberal capitalists love Steve Jobs and hate Mitt Romney: Both made shareholders rich; one benefited society.

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    • pawnman says:

      Steve Jobs benefited society…how? He suspended Apple’s charitable contributions and moved production to a facility overseas where working conditions are so bad they’ve been experiencing a rash of suicides.

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  8. Tucker says:

    What about the way that IP protection policy has been conducted in the last generation makes you believe that this is still a core strength of the government? Given the absurd heights that patent portfolios and lawsuits are getting to, along with the manner in which the justice department has gone after people on the RIAA’s behalf I don’t see this as something the government has been doing very well recently. If there were reasonable incentives and a higher level of confidence I think it could become good at it again, but that seems unlikely.

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