Statism

Analog January/February 2005

If you’ve ever wanted a peek inside the mindset of the utilitarian pragmatist and unabashedly statist, then you would do well to read or listen to David Brin’s novelette “Mars Opposition.” Begun in 2003 with the launch of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER), and originally published in Analog in January 2005, “Mars Opposition” has been republished in audio format in episode 298 of StarShipSofa (free). It is a well-written tale, though predictable and unsubtle, and is superbly narrated by Dave Robison. Unfortunately, Brin uses the story as a vehicle for riding some of his political hobbyhorses:

  • defending government and its officials from antigovernment criticism,
  • making government smarter with the help of the technocratic elite (such as himself),
  • and smearing libertarians as dogmatic, asocial creatures who are clueless about the human condition.

Fair warning, what follows is spoiler-ridden.

“Mars Opposition” opens at Cape Canaveral with the landing of a strange spaceship. What follows is an even stranger first contact with 50-odd beings who claim to be Martians. They each bear a long list of human names and offer payment in exchange for being given the location of one person on the list. When one of these people — Bruce Murray, one of the founders of the Mars Planetary Society — happens to be present, the Martian looking for him promptly walks over and “shoots him dead.” Before long, the Martians are scattering in all directions, each hunting for the next name on their list.

Why are Martians killing these people who all happen to be space enthusiasts? The unidentified narrator (from here on referring to the POV character, not Dave Robison) eventually figures everything out and explains it to us as events unfold. As fresh and interesting as this take on a first contact story is, I won’t dwell on it and will instead turn to examining Brin’s political message.

Brin himself describes “Mars Opposition” as a creepy campfire tale. That would make the Martians the boogeymen of the story. And the Martians — the boogeymen — are, as the narrator calls them at the end, ultimate libertarians.

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Space Taxi
Space Taxi
NASA-Certified Space Taxi

It sure seems like that’s what NASA is doing. NASA has to do something in order to maintain its relevance as the space age dawns in the era of commercial space flight. NASA is still running scientific-exploratory missions to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system, but even this role will be soon be overtaken by private enterprises like Planetary Resources.

From Space.com comes news that NASA has launched a private space taxi certification program. The program will consist of a two-stage “process aimed at ensuring commercial passenger spaceships currently under development will meet the agency’s safety standards, schedule and mission requirements.” Yay, NASA’s record of safety, timeliness, and priorities with minimal bureaucratic waste leaves me reassured.

Budget cuts no doubt have something to do with the certification program as well. “NASA expects to award multiple firms a Certification Products Contract (CPC), each of which will run for 15 months and be worth up to $10 million.” Restrict competition, rake in the dough, ensure the continuation of your own jobs, and retain control of the space industry — all in the name of safety, science, human progress, and protecting taxpayer “investments.”

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David Brin

Can I look any more smug. Can I.

David Brin
David Brin

Oops, he did it again.

David Brin, whom some think of as a libertarian science fiction author, and who styles himself as such, but who really isn’t even close to being libertarian, and who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time these days attacking real libertarians like a jilted lover, was recently interviewed on Wired.com via the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Brin has a controversial take on Star Wars. For example, he calls Yoda one of the most evil characters ever. Well, okay, Brin does have something of a point when it comes to Yoda. The Jedi as a whole are pretty much useless, meddling busybodies who are directly or indirectly responsible for the fundamental political problems in the Star Wars universe.

But Brin’s main criticism of Star Wars and George Lucas is premised largely on his fetish for state-democracy (my term for democratic institutions and processes ossified as formal mechanisms in the state apparatus). Lucas comes under fire for always protraying the republic as corrupt and nonfunctioning, which he does because he despises democracy and favors benign dictatorship.

But, of course, Brin has staked his entire nonfiction career on his Platonic ideal of radical transparency allowing perfect knowledge in a state-democracy. Only when this ideal is realized will freedom be protected and capitalism work properly, says Brin.

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Serenity
Joss Whedon at Comic-Con 2012
Joss Whedon at Comic-Con 2012

So disappointing:1

“We are watching capitalism destroy itself right now,” [Whedon] told the audience.

He added that America is “turning into Tsarist Russia” and that “we’re creating a country of serfs.”

Whedon was raised on the Upper Westside neighborhood of Manhattan in the 1970s, an area associated with left-leaning intellectuals. He said he was raised by people who thought socialism was a ”beautiful concept.”

Socialism remains a taboo word in American politics, as Republicans congressmen raise the specter of the Cold War. They refer to many Obama administration initatives as socialist, and the same goes for most laws that advocate increasing spending on social welfare programs. They also refer to the President as a socialist, though this and many of their other claims misuse the term.

This evidently frustrates Whedon, who traces this development to Ronald Reagan[.]

We have people trying to create structures and preserve the structures that will help the middle and working class, and people calling them socialists,” Whedon said. “It’s not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal […] it’s some people with some sense of dignity and people who have gone off the reservation.”

Whedon obviously can’t tell the difference between laissez-faire capitalism (i.e., free markets) and the state-regulated capitalism we have today. Or the difference between democratic corporatism and tyrannical absolute monarchy. As with most on the left, he directs his criticisms almost exclusively at the market and big corporations.

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  1. I’m a huge fan of Firefly and Serenity and enjoyed Dr. Horrible, Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, and the Avengers. 

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ARTICLE | Market Failure? The Case of Copyright Thumbnail

Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

How gigantically humongous and intrusive is the federal government? A traditional measure is to look at the pages of regulations in the Federal Register, which is, by now, probably the world’s largest book collection. The problem with this approach is that it takes no account of how a single bad regulation can have monstrously deleterious effects.

Copyright regulation is a good example of this. There was no universal enforcement until the very late part of the 19th century, and terms were mostly short in the early days of this regulation. In the course of the 20th century, regulations became ever more tight and the copyright terms ever longer, so much so that today, the words you sign away to a conventional publisher are theirs to keep for your lifetime plus 70 years!

One standard argument for doing this is that noncopyrighted works will not be efficiently exploited. You have to assign ownership or else the resource will vanish into the ether. No one will care about it, and civilization will lose extremely valuable literary works. Our market for ideas will be impoverished.

Now, to me, this argument seems obviously false, but that’s probably because of my own experience in publishing. I’ve seen it happen — so many times that it is predictable — that once a work has fallen out of print but is still under some kind of protection, it is mostly neglected by the heirs. No one who “owns” the work has the incentive to bring it to light, while those who care about it fear the law or don’t want to pay some arbitrary price set by the owners.

Meanwhile, when a work is public domain, there are dozens of people bidding to get it into print. This was true all throughout history, actually. The reason American school kids in the 19th century read British literature is that it was not regulated in the United States, and therefore, it could be sold very cheaply and distributed very widely. It is true today: Whether music or books, the material in the commons is far more in demand than that which is regulated. And the demand leads to the supply.

In other words, the opposite of the conventional exploitation theory is correct. The copyrighted works drop from memory, while the public domain works last and last. But of course, this observation draws from my deep involvement in the industry, and we can’t expect academic scribblers to understand anything about how the world actually works in real life.

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Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

Michael Stackpole, a traditionally published author who was one of the early champions of self-publishing ebooks, has an interesting post analyzing the settlement agreed to by three of the Big Six publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster — involved in the alleged ebook price fixing flap. If he’s right, the Department of Justice is going to be imposing more injustice than just preventing a little self-destructive collusive fixing of high prices. This is yet another among so many many many examples of the state stepping in to prevent something only to impose that very thing itself. Yes, it looks like the DoJ is going to prevent price fixing of one sort only to impose its own brand of price fixing. But hey, it’s only a bad thing when non-state entities do it, right?

Here is Stackpole’s breakdown of the settlement  provisions:

  1. For a period of two years,
  2. Publishers will not be able to set a restricted retail price for their product.
  3. Retailers will be able to set their own price for an ebook, but they cannot discount the bookbelow their own discount. (In short, the retailer cannot sell ebooks at a loss.)
  4. Publishers cannot “retaliate” against retailers during this time.
  5. The “favored nation” status that prevented a publisher from selling at a lower price to one retailer over another is gone.
  6. The Agency Pricing discount of 30% off the top that retailers pay publishers can remain in place.
  7. There are compliance procedures being set in place (that I don’t bother discussing) so the government can make sure that the publishers are complying with the agreement.

That’s right. Provision #3 fixes an arbitrary minimum price —a price floor. Retailers like Amazon will not be allowed to sell ebooks below the price they pay publishers for them; they will not be allowed to sell at a loss. For two years. And apparently there is yet more intrusive bureaucracy being set up to monitor compliance with these new regulations for the ebook market. It’s another shovel-ready Obama jobs program!

The federal government is also going to prevent publishers from requiring retailers sell their ebooks for a certain price. In other words, it bans the agency model. Now, I’m no fan of the agency model, and I think it’s self-destructive for publishers to adopt it in order to screw their customers with high prices so that they can prop up their dead-tree book business model for a while longer. But I don’t think they should be prevented by law from doing so.

Stabilization is Chaos: “Monetary policy all over the world has followed the advice of the stabilizers. It is high time that their influence, which has already done harm enough, should be overthrown.”
— F.A. Hayek, 1932

The federal government is also going to prevent publishers from retaliating against retailers for the prices they set. Also, no more contracts that stipulate publishers can’t sell to other retailers at a lower price. In other words, the state is going to short circuit the market process by preventing publishers from putting any kind of meaningful pressure on retailers and vice versa. No jockeying for position in the ebook market. Forget letting consumers decide and the best business model win. The United States federal government prefers stasis — the maintenance of a status quo of its own making.

But wait, there’s more. Stackpole does the math and argues that far from preventing publishers from fixing high prices for consumers, the settlement will actually disincentivize both publishers and retailers from setting lower prices:

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Sharis Pozen

DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Sharis Pozen
DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Get this: The federal bureaucrat who last month started the litigation against Apple and book publishers for ebook pricing is the same person who, back in the stone age, represented Netscape in its lawsuit against Microsoft.

Recall that Microsoft was trying to give away its Internet Explorer to computer users for free. Netscape went nuts and got the government to clobber Microsoft for being so nice to consumers. It put the company through litigation hell and even demanded that Microsoft change its operating system code to untie it from IE.

The person’s name is Sharis Pozen, and she is acting head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division and a political appointee of the Obama administration. She claims that she is threatening state violence against Apple and publishers for pricing collusion — and that it’s her job to protect consumers.

Interesting. She began her career trying to protect the rights of an old-line company to rip off consumers. To her, a price of zero was unfair competition. She was sure that a browser should be a paid product. The progress of history flattens that argument. Today, dozens of companies beg you to download their browser for free. Browser use is all over the place, sort of like a free market. There is no Microsoft monopoly, contrary to the overheated predictions.

Given that history, one might suppose she would retire from public life and maybe go into flower arranging or something. Instead, she is still at it. Last year, she denied a proposed merger between T-Mobile and AT&T that would have improved your cell service. This year, she says that a deal between publishers and Apple is harming consumers, so she has to act.

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