Many things, the neoliberal will answer. Many neoliberals believe government intervention in markets result in inefficiencies. Interferences make the market unfree. Of course, free markets allocate resources efficiently, so you reduce inefficiency when the government interferes. That’s a fairly typical argument. You can look at all sorts of neat equilibrium models and graphs that might show this to be the case (particularly when you accept the assumptions on which they are based).

One problem that government can introduce is the reduction of competition. Competition within markets is believed to achieve better results (economic efficiency) than when there’s no or little competition. For example, society is better off when there exist perfect competition within a market than when there’s a monopolistic firm that exerts market power. (Perfect competition doesn’t actually exist in the real world, but it does in theories, so we restrict ourselves to theoretical discussion.) So government is decried for making markets less efficient. But, quite curiously, this criticism is very selective. We can’t have government enforcing a minimum wage, for example, because that creates an outcome that diverges from the market equilibrium (i.e. creates an inefficiency). At the same time, however, we need copyrights and patents to protect our works and government needs to protect this.

As I said, it’s selective and actually fairly ideological. One opposes government when it suits one’s beliefs and one supports government when it suits one’s beliefs. When you oppose it and when you support it is often reliant on your ideology. So let’s look at copyrights, which are widely supported by anti-government right wingers. It’s a form of protection. It’s something the government provides to producers that results in less competition. In other words, it makes the market less efficient. The technical term is called a “government-granted monopoly.” It provides the exclusive right to a firm or individual to produce something. If I want to produce (or reproduce) it, I’m not allowed to. Keeping to neoclassical economic theories, society is made worse off. Those on the right like to rail against “coercive monopolies,” but not this coercive monopoly. In this case, we need government. Specifically, we need government to protect our monopolistic power. So you can’t even begin to talk honestly about “free markets” when you’ve got government enforcing monopolies, yet “free markets” remain to be hailed.

So why do right-wingers support copyright? There are reasons. One reason to support government intervention is because free markets are inefficient. (You probably won’t it hear stated in this way.) It’s stated that copyrights, patents, and so on are required for innovation. If I can’t get the sole right to write a book (or this blog post), I won’t write it. That’s the argument. If people can simply copy a song file and torrent it to everyone for free on peer-to-peer networks, then I’ve got no incentive to produce the song. (Note: I wrote a letter to the University Chronicle in 2007 in support of music copyrights.) If we accept this, then we should probably accept that free markets aren’t perfect and require government intervention to work properly. That might be reasonable to accept. But should we really accept the argument that copyrights and such are necessarily required to incentivize production? Are copyrights really what incentivized the great works of Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo, or Newton? Actually, they didn’t exist back then. And when you actually look at copyrights today, particularly in the music industry, it’s the not the original creator that retains those rights. Many famous creators of “intellectual property” actually forfeit their rights to corporations, usually even before the product is created. In fact, nothing I write on this blog is copyrighted; yet, I continue to write. Maybe nobody wants to reproduce what I write, but look at Wikipedia, the content of which is not copyrighted and yet forms the basis for one of the most successful Web sites and encyclopedias in the world.

However, there can also be very dangerous aspects of copyrights. When you simply say “the market becomes less efficient,” that’s one thing. But what this might actually translate into in the real world is hundreds of thousands of Africans dieing. That’s a consequence of patents. When you simply talk of it in terms of “efficiency,” you sort of remove the moral dilemmas of what’s actually being talking about. This is one of the criticism Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate at Columbia University, levels against patents for medicines and vaccines. In his book Making Globalization Work, Stiglitz devotes a chapter for an idea he calls “prizes, not patents.” Explains Stiglitz in the Post-Autistic Economics Review, “But the patent system not only restricts the use of knowledge; by granting (temporary) monopoly power, it often makes medications unaffordable for people who don’t have insurance. In the Third World, this can be a matter of life and death for people who cannot afford new brand-name drugs but might be able to afford generics. For example, generic drugs for first-line AIDS defenses have brought down the cost of treatment by almost 99% since 2000 alone, from $10,000 to $130.” For more of Stiglitz on intellectual property and medicines, please see this video or read the article I just linked to.

Stiglitz’s proposed solution is setting up a prize for developers who develop important life-saving drugs. He writes:

There is an alternative way of financing and incentivizing research that, at least in some instances, could do a far better job than patents, both in directing innovation and ensuring that the benefits of that knowledge are enjoyed as widely as possible: a medical prize fund that would reward those who discover cures and vaccines. Since governments already pay the cost of much drug research directly or indirectly, through prescription benefits, they could finance the prize fund, which would award the biggest prizes for developers of treatments or preventions for costly diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Of course, the patent system is itself a prize system, albeit a peculiar one: the prize is temporary monopoly power, implying high prices and restricted access to the benefits that can be derived from the new knowledge. By contrast, the type of prize system I have in mind would rely on competitive markets to lower prices and make the fruits of the knowledge available as widely as possible. With better-directed incentives (more research dollars spent on more important diseases, less money spent on wasteful and distorted marketing), we could have better health at lower cost.

I think it should be clear now that government-granted monopolies are not the only way to incentivize production and there a lot of problems in the way contemporary copyrights are constructed. With the greater success of copyleft and open source in recent times, I think it’s time we begin to contemplate alternatives. The dispersion and sharing of knowledge—e.g. the very purpose of university—is of paramount importance to society. We should not be trying to restrict it through government interventions.