Land Monopoly and Literary Monopoly.

Land Monopoly and Literary Monopoly.

I am asked by Mr. Simpson, in another column, to disprove Lysander Spooner’s argument in favor of property in ideas, and paragraphs from Mr. Spooner’s book are quoted for my especial attention. One of these paragraphs is addressed to those who believe that ideas are new wealth created by man’s labor; the other is addressed to those who believe that ideas are natural wealth discovered and taken possession of by man. As I do not belong to the former class, I have no call to answer the argument addressed to it. To the latter class I do belong; and as one of that class I am simply told by Mr. Spooner that he who discovers or first takes possession of an idea thereby becomes its lawful and rightful proprietor, on the same principle that he who first takes possession of any material production of nature thereby makes himself its rightful owner. But I deny that he who first takes possession of any material production of nature thereby makes himself its rightful owner. What does this mean if not unlimited land monopoly? I call Spooner’s work on Intellectual Property positively foolish, because it is fundamentally foolish, — because, that is to say, its discussion of the acquisition of the right of property starts with a basic proposition that must be looked upon by all consistent Anarchists as obvious nonsense. I quote this basic proposition. The natural wealth of the world belongs to those who first take possession of it. . . . So much natural wealth, remaining unpossessed, as any one can take possession of first, becomes absolutely his property. In interpretation of this, Mr. Spooner defines taking possession of a thing as the bestowing of valauble labor upon it, such, for instance, ain the case of land, as cutting down the trees or building a fence around it. What follows from this? Evidently that a man may go to a piece of vacant land and fence it off; that he may then go to a second piece and fence that off; then to a third, and fence that off; then to a fourth, a fifth, a hundredth, a thousandth, fencing them all off; that, unable to fence off himself as many as he wishes, he may hire other men to do the fencing for him; and that then he may stand back and bar all other men from using these lands, or admit them as tenants at such rental as he may choose to exact.

Now, if this be true, what becomes of the Anarchistic doctrine of occupancy and use as the basis and limit of land ownership? I ask Mr. Simpson, and any other Anarchists who, having been led to read Mr. Spooner’s book in consequence of this copyright discusion, may be inclined to accept its reasoning, whether they are prepared to abandon the occupancy and use theory for the theory of land monopoly? For it is upon land monopoly that Mr. Spooner directly founds literary monopoly.

I told Mr. Simpson, in a recent issue of Liberty, that he was departing from Anarchistic ground. His latest development more than ever justifies my words. Belief in monopoly of ideas is leading him to belief in monopoly of land, as was bound to be the case. Archism in one point is taking him to archism in another. Soon, if he is logical, he will be an Archist in all respects. I shall be sorry to see such a fate overtake him, but I shall be forced to leave him to it if I cannot save him except by disputing the manifestly absurd proposition that a man has a right to exclude me from as much of the earth’s surface as he can fence off.

Far be it from me to underrate the merits of Lysander Spooner. Those who read my tributes to his memory at the time of his death know the vast measure of praise which I awarded him. I have no word to take back. I honored him unspeakably as a soldier of liberty in manifold directions, and I loved him devotedly as a friend. But when his name is brought forward as a prop for a weak cause, I am bound to remind those who appeal to him that in many things he was a man filled with prejudice and superstition, a man, not of the future or even of the present, but of the past. He believed in God; he believed in religion; he believed in spirits; he believed in immortality; he believed in duty; he hated utilitarianism (despite some sentiments to the contrary to be found here and there in his works); he believed in land monopoly; he believed in usury; he believed in marriage. What wonder, then, that he believed also in property in ideas!

The introduction of his name into this discussion gives me an opportunity to point out to those Anarchists who favor property in ideas a new and rather amusing reductio ad absurdum of their position. The economic doctrine upon which Anarchists are most harmoniously united is that the idea of the equal right of all wealth to representation in currency necessarily underlies the abolition of usury and the solution of the labor question. This idea was copyrighted by Mr. Spooner. He claimed, as I know from repeated conversations with him, that the idea was his property, and that every mutual bank could and would be compelled to pay him and his heirs a perpetual royalty for the use of it. The old banking system maintains the rate of discount say at six per cent. The Anarchists think that the new banking system would reduce the rate to less than one per cent. Mr. Spooner, who claims to be the inventor and owner of the new banking system, declares that no bank shall use it except on condition of paying to him nearly the whole of this difference of five per cent. which would otherwise be saved by the bank’s customers. (Mr. Spooner, who was a benevolent man, would probably have demanded less, but his heirs were Shylocks.) Now, what difference does it make to the borrower, and ultimately to labor, whether six per cent. is paid to the bank, or one per cent. to the bank and five per cent. to Mr. Spooner? None at all; in either case labor is equally exploited. Thus, by the recognition of property in ideas, the cause of usury is made permanent and the solution of the labor question is rendered impossible. Is Mr. Simpson’s optimistic faith in the spirit of competition equal to the belief that Mr. Spooner could be defeated in his diabolical scheme? Does he think that Proudhon, who invented the same thing, would compete with Spooner? On the contrary, what would be easier or more for their interest than for Proudhon and Spooner to form a trust? They could do so securely, because the idea would soon be so widely known that there could be no more independent inventors, and consequently no more competitors. And then the exploitation of labor by these two men and their heirs could go on forever. How does Mr. Simpson like the prospect?

The remaining points discussed by Mr. Simpson have been covered, most of them, imin my previous articles. One of them, the spook of immaterial property, is effectively disposed of by Tak Kak, the spook-destroyer. Mr. Simpson will probably answer him simply by saying that he is talking metaphysics or something worse. That is one of those convenient replies to which a man resorts when he is driven up a tree. Be it metaphysics or not, I must agree with Mr. Lloyd and Tak Kak in confining property to material objects, even at the risk of having Spooner thrown at me again. But here I must tell Mr. Simpson that I cannot devote these columns to extended extracts from the existing literature of the opposition. I think no one can charge me with unwillingness to give the friends of copyright a full and fair hearing. If Mr. Simpson has anything of his own to offer, the columns are still open. But if I were to let him reprint Spooner here, perhaps I should want to reprint Proudhon as an offset. Where would the matter end? Liberty is not a free parliament, but an organ. It exists for propagandism. It is ever willing and anxious to test its views by clash with opposing views, but it lives to spread, not the doctrine of monopoly, but the gospel of liberty.

T.

This article is part of a debate: Property in Ideas.