Friday, May 29, 2009

Nicholas Gruen on Intellectual Property

Nicholas Gruen, an Australian economist, who has featured several times on Lost Legacy, posts at Club Troppo HERE and his recent paper:

Adam Smith 2.0: Emergent Public Goods, Intellectual Property and the Rhetoric of Remix”, presented to the Copyright Future: Copyright Freedom Conference, Canberra (27th May) is now available (follow the link). Here is his introduction:

“I put quite a bit of effort into my two pieces on Adam Smith in Ross Gittins’ column while he was on leave and got quite a lot of positive feedback about them. So when I was asked to talk to an excellent conference organised by the indefatigable Fitzgerald siblings of QUT - Professors Brian and Anne - entitled Copyright Future: Copyright Freedom about the law of copyright in the age of the internet I decided to try to turn those columns, particularly the latter one, into a more substantial paper. Some academic stars were in attendance from around the world including Lawrence Lessig and it was a great conference. Plaudits to the Fitzgeralds and others associated with it.

One thing I really liked was the terrific way in which PhD students were involved, giving five minute talks on their research, being involved as discussants. They’re doing interesting things, and we were interested to hear what they were. Still, I christened Brian “Brother Didactica” because boy did we have a meal to chew through - full on papers, comments, discussants, questions, slide shows, from 8j.30 am till 6.30 at night. Seventeen people wheeled on and off the stage efficiently before lunch! And on it went.

I was one of the very few economists there, and was alarmed at how much of a meal lawyers can make of things that economists see as non-issues (like how to get the last penny of royalties to the copyright holders of ’orphan works’ - that is works that are not ‘public domain’ but for which rightful owners of copyright can’t be found.) I was sitting in a lengthy session about this and other not dissimilar problems in amazement that no-one reached for an economic perspective on this stuff (even if they didn’t want to treat it as the final word). I hope to blog about this. I wanted to say that there should have been more economists at the conference - which there should have been. But I didn’t want to say that if only economists were in attendance it would all be sorted. So if I get round to the post I have in mind I’ll spell out a little more about what I mean and explain where I think economists’ reasoning is strongest (something I’ve already forshadowed above) and where I think economists don’t think particularly well, and where lawyers do a better job.

In the meantime, I thought I’d post my talk which is the ‘paper’ of the ‘column‘ as it were, which I was pleased to find Mark Thoma thought worthy of his fantastic site Economists’ view. Likewise Gavin Kennedy liked my earlier column about Adam Smith and mirror neurons. Gavin and Mark Thoma have also picked up Don Arthur’s post on Adam Smith on poverty.”

(Excuse the shameless plug.) Nicholas is not just an economist; he is also a talented writer and he understands Adam Smith better than most who claim to quote him authoritatively. In short Nicholas has read Smith’s books, joining a very small elite among economists, and an even smaller elite of those who write about him with false confidence in the mainstream media.

Currently, I am in correspondence with Nicholas over his use of the phrase ‘hard wired’ in relation to human capacities for sympathy. His use fits the themes of ‘Web 2.0’ - it sounds ‘ITish’ – and therefore possibly legitimate on poetic grounds, but I am not so sure that it is appropriate for Adam Smith’s thinking.

Innate capacities in some sort of moral faculty, as asserted by Francis Hutcheson, Smith’s tutor and mentor, were rejected by Smith when he wrote Moral Sentiments, and presumably in the lectures he delivered on Ethics at Glasgow University (1751-1764) – and possibly during his public lectures at Edinburgh (1748-51) – in favour of the firm idea that humans acquire their capacities for sympathy from social experiences, first as infants and youth from their contact with others (the ‘great school of self command’).

Without that social contact, a human would have no notion of sympathy for others. Fortunately, humans have always been born into social contact (as were the primates before them). Absent their parents and contact only with non-human animals (a case was reported this week of a child growing up only with dogs and behaving like a dog) the person would be bereft of any notion of human behaviour. Smith asserted that because they had no mirror on their behaviour they would have to learn how to behave when they did come into society, which is where normal human beings learn about moral behaviour (whether they practice it or not).

I conclude that our moral capacities are not ‘hard-wired’; they are not placed there by God or Nature. This is also seen in the different behaviour sets practiced by humans living in different social cultures and how behaviour sets can clash remarkably clearly when in contact. Smith noted in Moral Sentiments how people in groups living off murder and theft would have to desist from murdering and stealing from each other if their society were to function – though they may happily murder and steal from people in other societies.

Our discussions continue… Meanwhile, follow the link and enjoy Nicholas' great writing and thinking talent - there ain’t a lot of it about and much of what there is available you will find in Nicholas Gruen’s short articles.

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