May 28, 2009 · Lessig
The part of that book that really got me going was the incessant Red-baiting — the suggestion that the movement of which I am a part is a kind of warmed over Marxism from the 1960s.
That part always gets me going because it betrays a kind of mushiness in thinking that I should have thought a decade of writing by scores of advocates would have driven away. As I wrote about Helprin:
It is in this extreme of Red-baiting that one can see the mushiness of Helprin’s brain: Let’s say he were attacking a bunch of scholars who believed copyright should be as robust as the Framers of our Constitution had it. That was a regime that secured copyrights only to those who registered their work. And not just any work, but only “maps, charts, book or books” (music, for example, was excluded). Imagine the term of the protection was again just as the Framers made it — 14 years, renewable by the author, if living, for another 14 years (but again, only if he registered the renewal). And imagine finally that the rights granted were forfeit if the author failed to deposit the copyrighted work with the government, or if he failed to mark the work with the appropriate sign. Such a reform would certainly be radical. It is wildly more radical than anything any of the scholars Helprin attacks would recommend.
But here’s the question: would one who so recommended be a “collectivist”? Were our Framers “collectivists”? Obviously not. Because the consequence of a limited copyright is not that the collective gets to control who does what. The consequence of a limited copyright is that the work is in the public domain, and anyone has the liberty to do anything he or she wants with the work. The state or the “collective” is not privileged over the individual. The individual is privileged over the state or “collective.” And so strong is that privilege in America that a Court of Appeals in Colorado recently held that the government can’t remove work from the public domain unless it satisfies a strict First Amendment test first.
The kind words of some in response to the review made me think perhaps the week wasn’t completely wasted. But then as I got settled into a 13 hour flight to Australia, I read this piece by Kevin Kelly, “The New Socialism.”
Words have meaning. We don’t get to choose their meaning. If you call something “X” people will hear the equation. They won’t read the fine-print which says (“By X, I mean really not-X).
When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.
That statement is flatly wrong. It is completely unreasonable to call that “socialism” — at least when the behavior described is purely voluntary. It’s like saying “Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it’s not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism.” Both statements are wrong because they point to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.
Kelly’s argument is like so many today that has implicitly embraced the view that free market, libertarian sorts believe that the only thing in the world is competition, or people working to non-common goals. It is the idea that we are free only if we are antagonistic, and that free market theorists have been working to create a world where individuals struggle against, not with. A world that aspires to dog-eat-dog as its central value.
But that conception of capitalism/free-market/libertarianism has no basis in fact. And so as I ranted in my head about Kelly’s confusion, I was enormously happy to have the chance to hear an economist at the conference I was attending at Canberra present a paper that (unintentionally) completely destroys Kelly’s thesis.
Nicholas Gruen is an economist with the consulting group, Lateral Economics. His paper (PDF) (blog entry) was titled “Adam Smith 2.0: Emergent Public Goods, Intellectual Property and the Rhetoric of Remix.” And he introduced the paper by remarking a fact that I had missed — this year is the 250th anniversary of Adam Smith’s first (and last) published book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (alas, the second edition). (Last because he finished his 6th edition of the book responding to the terrors of the French revolution just before he died in 1790).
What the modern misunderstanding of markets forgets about Smith is that his aim was as much to understand the provision of public goods as it was to understand the role of the market. Indeed, you could only understand the role of the market against a background of public goods (including civil society), and one critically important question is how a society produces those public goods.
Unlike statists of later years, Smith was fascinated by emergent public goods — goods that were public goods (since nonrival and nonexcludable, as economists later would formalize the concept), but that were created not by any central actor like the state, but by the mutual and voluntary actions of individuals. Language is the simplest example — language is a quintessentially public good, but no central coordinator is necessary to produce language. But Smith was eager to describe a wide range of emergent public goods that set the preconditions to a well functioning market.
Obviously, in this focus on civil society, Smith is not alone — even among the heros to libertarian/capitalist/free marketeers. In this respect, Hayek continues the tradition Smith began. He too was deeply sensitive to the health of civil society, and recognized how civil society was produced by “masses of people who own the means of production [and] work toward a common goal and share their products in common, [people who] contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge.” But Hayek too was not “socialist.”
The thing that Smith was pointing to (and Hayek too), is not “socialism.” It is not reasonably called socialism. Because “socialism” is the thing Smith was attacking in the 6th edition of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people. As Gruen quotes Smith:
The man of system. . . is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. . . . He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Coercive government action is — IMHO — a necessary condition of something being “socialism.” It isn’t sufficient — there is plenty of coercive governmental action that doesn’t qualify as socialism, like raising taxes to fund national defense, or to pay the police. But if you’re calling something “socialist,” then a requirement for using that term correctly — meaning in the way it is understood at least by people who don’t take the time to read a 3,500 word essay that redefines the term — is to be able to point to the coercive state action that produces the thing you’re talking about.
I’m not an opponent to all things plausibly called “socialist” (though as I’ll argue in a moment, our political culture could do well to avoid the most prominent examples of socialism that Washington has produced over the past 8 years). A graduated income tax could properly be called “socialist,” because it is coerced, though I’m in favor of it. Forcing polluters to internalize the cost of their pollution (carbon as well as others) is not, in my view, properly called “socialist,” even though it is the product of coercive state action. There are many examples in the middle of course — schools, parks, public highways. But all of the examples of proper “socialism” begin with pointing to coercion by the state. A conservative Baptist church is not “socialist” when it voluntarily collects money to give to the poor, even though the result is similar to the result of a “socialist” plan to redistribute money from the rich to the poor.
On this account, none of the things that Kelly (and I) celebrate about the Internet are “socialist.” No one forces Wikipedia editors to build a free encyclopedia. No one sends to the Gulag (Helprin’s book notwithstanding) photographers who don’t use CC licenses to share their photographs in Flickr. Scientists who share their research freely within the Public Library of Science are not necessarily friends of Che. They may be. But their freely sharing their knowledge is not a certain signal of leftist leanings.
All this would have been obvious to Kelly if he had included in his list of purportedly “socialist” organizations the Christian Right. Say what you want about the politics of the Christian Right (and don’t get me started), one can’t say they are “socialists.” But likewise, whatever you think about organized religion (and again, don’t get me started), one can’t deny that it represents “masses of people who own the means of production work[ing] toward a common goal and share[ing] their products in common,  contribut[ing] labor without wages and enjoy[ing] the fruits free of charge.” Yet it would be patently “unreasonable” to call the Baptist Church “socialism.”
Likewise might this have been obvious if Kelly had focused on other writing about the stuff he and I celebrates, that emphasizes more than Benkler, for example, the commercial or business dimension to this phenomenon. Half of REMIX is about what Kelly calls the “hybrid,” but my point is about the hybrid as a business strategy. So too with the fantastic book, Wikinomics. Again, the focus of that book is on how a sharing economy gets leveraged by a commercial economy to benefit both. In no instance is that leveraging coercion. In no way, therefore, is it “socialism.”
Now of course Kelly works hard in his essay to disassociate the term “socialism” from lots of “cultural baggage” (as he puts it; victims of the Gulag may have a different way of describing that): As he writes:
The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.
Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.
And of course, these distinctions are right and true. But what is not true is that something is “socialism” because “technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions.” Tim O’Reilly gave us a good enough word for such technologies — Web 2.0. And if that term is too geeky, then how about “civil society”? Or the extraordinary words of Smith from 250 years ago.
I launch this rant against a friend not to betray a Stallman-like-tic. I think think some fuzzy language is productive. I don’t insist on precision at every linguistic turn.
But sloppiness here has serious political consequences. When a founder of the movement which we all now celebrate calls this movement “socialist,” that plays right in the hand of those would attack everything this movement has built. Again, see Helprin. Or Andrew Keen.
It is a fact that in America the term “socialism” is a smear. I’m not defending that fact. I wouldn’t give up defending programs merely because they could be so smeared.
But I do think that now is not the time to engage in a playful redefinition of a term that has such a distinctive and clear sense. Whatever “socialism” could have become, had it not been hijacked by revolutions in the east, what it is in the minds of 95% of America is not what Wikipedia is.
And indeed, when I look around at the real socialism of the past decade, I am almost Declan-esque in my revulsion towards it: America has plenty of “socialism.” The most recent versions we should all be very skeptical of. This is the general practice of socializing risk, and privatizing benefits. I’d be happy to join the “anti-socialist” movement if we could agree to end that perversion first.
But that deal notwithstanding, I will never agree to call what millions have voluntarily created on the Net “socialism.” That term insults the creators, and confuses the rest.