Sunday, June 24, 2007

Utopias and artificial scarcity

Utopian literature is by and large a rather dull genre. Consider Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, Aldous Huxley's Island, and Sir Thomas More's original vision. Many of the famous contributions were written before the failure of socialism demonstrated that human self-interest is more powerful than any community, and later writers seem to conveniently develop selective amnesia regarding the success of efforts to implement collective societies. In a particularly egregious instance of such intentional blindness, the psychologist B. F. Skinner produced fantastical visions where an end-run around human nature created out each sovereign individual a worker bee primarily dedicated to the good of the hive, a cog in the larger machine. A key feature of these political, social, and economical fictions is the state of plenty, or at least sufficiency, which arises when everyone works for the common good and takes no more than they need. Work days are uniformly short, but while on the job, workers are focused and productive. No one resents offering the sweat of their brow for the benefit of others, nor do any strive to lift themselves above their fellows.

While flesh and blood humans may never be able to achieve these ideals, it strikes me that certain features of these utopias are within our grasp. Many of the products of our present information economy are kept out of reach of most people only because of artificial scarcity, enforced through intellectual property laws. Consider a few examples: only a minute fraction of the cost of most medications is due to the expense of their manufacture or distribution. Aside from a small percentage of substances of biological origin, once the effective agent and synthesis technique are known, most pills can be produced for pennies. India has taken advantage of this fact by rewriting their patent laws to cover the manufacturing process rather than the final product. As a result, Indian companies can produce substantially discounted generic versions of HIV and other medications by subtly changing the process by which the substances are made. I'm no expert on world economics and trade law, but the article linked above claims that these generics are sold for one twentieth to one fiftieth of the American price. Pharmaceutical companies shout themselves horse asserting that the high cost of their wares reflects the expense and risks of research, but most of the basic research which underlies medical innovation is performed at tax-payer expense by university laboratories. It is true that the clinical trials needed to prove the safety and efficacy of new drugs are time consuming and expensive, but it is hard to believe that they could not be performed by the public sector. The academic world has produced a stunning system for motivating intelligent and industrious individuals with a carrot that isn't made of dollar bills. Given the opportunity and the right incentives, these institutions could turn their considerable intellectual clout towards producing medications financed and owned by the public.

At a more mundane level, consider the designer fashion industry. A $200 or even $500 pair of limited-edition designer jeans is not made of substantially different materials than the $20 jeans from Old Navy. They are not the product of superior workmanship. In many cases, they are made in the same overseas sweatshops. And most importantly, in many places in east Asia (and their outposts in major American cities), you can obtain knock-offs of these designer jeans for pennies on the dollar.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the substantial output of the movie, television, music, software, and art industries could be available to all for no more than the cost of a broadband internet connection. While the arguments regarding intrinsically electronic media have been flogged until their backs are raw and bleeding, it is relevant to note that many of the works of art which sell for thousands or millions of dollars could be easily mass produced and made available for everyone's living room. Indeed, many of the most famous contemporary artists operate factories where journeyman artists render into canvas and paint the vision of their popularly anointed overseers. These same artistic apprentices could produce their paintings at less than stratospheric prices if less value was accorded to the proprietary signature of their masters. Once again, east Asia has beaten the western world to the punch.

I recognize that simply eliminating intellectual property rights would wreak havoc on the American and world economy. But I think it is high time we seriously considered the cost of artificially restricting the distribution of goods that people want and need. In all of the cases described above, the majority of the costs passed on to the public consist of the expense of redeveloping a product which is already available, and then convincing the public that they cannot do without the new version. How many different selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, boot-cut hip-huggers, or commercially created boy bands do we really need? Are there no better uses to which those financial and human resources could be put? What benefit do we as consumers derive from the manufactured desire for artificially scarce goods distinguished only by their expensive advertising campaigns? Government, and the rights it supports, is at least in principle of the people, by the people, and for the people. If the present formulation of intellectual property rights is no longer serving our collective interest, we can and should change them.

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