Another Libertarian Argument Against Patents Bites the Dust
Libertarians and Austrians, including such organizations as the CATO Institute, Von Mises, and the Wall Street Journal, have put forth a number of arguments against patents and intellectual property. These arguments include that ideas (an invention is not just an idea, but I will let that go) are not scarce and therefore patents are not real property rights, patents are monopolies, patents inhibit the growth of technology, patents require the use of force to enforce one’s rights, patents are not natural rights and were not recognized as so by Locke and the founders, among other arguments. I have discussed most of these arguments earlier and will put the links in below. One of their favorite fall back arguments is that patents limit what I can do with my property. For instance, a patent for an airplane (Wright brothers) keeps me from using my own wood, mechanical linkages, engine, cloth, etc. and building an airplane with ailerons (and wing warping). This according to the libertarian argument is obviously absurd. After all it is my property. Here is an article Scarcity, Monopoly, and Intellectual Property on the Von Mises website where you can see almost every variation on the arguments mention above either in the article itself or in the comments.
Can I do whatever I want to with my property, or are there restrictions? Well when I buy a book, a movie, or a song, it does not give me the right to make unlimited copies of them. I have a property right in the physical book, but not the rights (copyrights) to make copies. Of course, many Libertarians think copyrights are absurd also, so let’s look at another example. Let’s assume you own your house and land outright. Does that give you the right to do whatever you want to with you land? Most likely, your land has easements for utility lines, such as water, gas, sewer, electricity. You are not allowed to do anything that interferes with those easements. You might object that I don’t own the easement, so this is a bad example. So let’s say you own a bulldozer, does that give you the right to bulldoze my apple orchard and build a house there? It is your property after all and according to the libertarian argument you are allowed to do whatever you want to with your property. You might object, that of course the libertarians did not mean that you could take advantage of my property to build on. Of course that begs the question, what is property? If a patent and copyright are property rights, then this is exactly the same situation. Another example where you are prohibited from doing something with your property, is in the case of water drainage. In particularly wet areas of the US you are prohibited from moving the earth on your land so water drains onto your neighbors property more freely – and no this is not an EPA rule, this is common law property rights. In parts of the country where water is scarce you are prohibited from damming up water on your land. If you buy land in a residential neighborhood you are prohibited from setting up a pig farm. Just because I own a gun, doesn’t give me the right to go around shooting people. The libertarian argument that patents are not real property rights because they prevent others from doing something with their property fails even the most cursory review.
One of the common themes that runs throughout all Libertarian arguments against patents is that Libertarians’ do not seem to know what property rights are, or how they arise. Here is a post on point, Property Right, Possession, and Objects; this post not only explains the proper basis of property rights, but why the Libertarian point that property requires possession is a fallacy. Libertarians have failed to provide a clear definition of what property rights are and how they arise. In fact, most anti-patent libertarians believe property rights are a useful social convention for distributing scarce resources. This is interesting, because they can become so adamant about what is their property. But nothing in this concept of property has anything to do with RIGHTS. If another, better system comes along for distributing scarce resources, then your property is gone.
Property rights do not give the owner the right to do whatever they want with their property. The source of property rights is creation, not the idea that it is a socially useful convention. Patents recognize the metaphysical fact that the inventor is the creator of his invention and are completely consistent with other property rights in prohibiting an owner of other property from using it to build his invention.
Below is a list of other Libertarian arguments against patents and why they fail.
Inventions are not scarce:
Patents are monopolies
If patents are a monopoly, as some suggest, then it should led to certain outcomes. A close examination shows that none of the supposed monopoly effects result from granting patents.
This post explains the characteristics of a monopoly and a property right and poses three questions to show the difference. Patents fit all the characteristics of a property right and none of a monopoly. Note that professional license, such as a law license has some of the characteristics of a monopoly.
This post contains a number of quotes from philosophers explaining that patents are not monopolies.
This post compares the definition of a monopoly to the rights obtained with a patent. It shows that the rights obtained with a patent do not confer a monopoly.
This post traces the ideas of Locke and William Blackstone to show patents and copyrights are natural rights.
Patents inhibit the growth of technology:
This post shows that those countries with the strongest patent systems are the technological leaders of the world Patents: Monopoly or Property Right a Testable Hypothesis
Patents require the use of force
This is one of the more absurd arguments by libertarians. All property rights are enforced by the government’s use of force. If someone trespasses on your land or steals your car, the government threatens or uses force to get it back. The same is true for patent, which are property rights in inventions.
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