This is part of my series on the problems with libertarianism. This piece only applies to those libertarians who believe in “intellectual property”.

I visited Libertopia one day to see how they were doing. I met a smart fellow named Bluejean, and we ducked into a cafe and discussed how Libertopia had addressed some of our pressing political issues.

Aaron: So back in the States we’re having a big argument about whether the government should control the sale of guns or not.

Bluejean: Hah, you silly Americans! In Libertopia we’d never allow the government to restrict our freedoms like that.

Aaron: Oh, I see. So anyone can just go to a store and buy a gun without any waiting period or background check?

Bluejean: Yep, pretty much.

Aaron: I’m surprised. Can you show me one of these stores?

Bluejean: Well, there aren’t really any around…

Aaron: Oh, why not?

Bluejean: Well, we support strong property rights here in Libertopia (the government shouldn’t interfere with something as important as property) so all the different gun inventions are owned. When we first started, the government held an auction to decide who would get the inventions, and Gil bought all the gun-related ones. Well, Gil turned out to be a little paranoid, so he enforced his property rights to get back all existing guns and ensure no more were ever created. So really you can only get a gun if you’re a friend of Gil.

Aaron: What?! That’s worse than our system! At least in the States we vote on whether to allow guns or not, but here it’s all up to Gil!

Bluejean: Hey, it’s his property. As Locke said, “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

Aaron: Doesn’t anyone protest this? I mean, surely Libertopia has freedom of speech.

Bluejean: Of course! Our government can’t tell us what to say and what not to.

Aaron: So why don’t you take out an ad in the newspapers?

Bluejean: Gil owns all the newspapers. And the radio stations. And the TV networks.

Aaron: Well, what about the Internet?

Bluejean: Well, Gil could sue you for defamation.

Aaron: You have defamation law? I thought you said the government didn’t restrict speech.

Bluejean: Well, it’s not a silly defamation law like in the US where we tell people what they can’t say for their own good. It’s just that Gil has a property right in what people say about him, you can’t infringe on it without his permission.

Aaron: But that’s worse!

Bluejean: Hey, “The Libertarian way is […] based on the moral principle of self-ownership.” (source) There’s nothing more important than protecting one’s property right in themself!

Aaron: Don’t you see? Your country is a police state, they’ve just bamboozled you by calling it property instead of government regulation. But your freedoms are being taken away all the same.

Bluejean: That’s nonsense. No one could take away our freedoms in Libertopia. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I need to go pay Gil for having this conversation.

Aaron: Huh?

Bluejean: Oh, this cafe is owned by Gil — he has listening devices overhead and he charges whenever someone uses his name in conversation.

Bluejean walks off.

Aaron: But what about privacy? And free speech? And …

Aaron sits there amazed, until a waiter comes by and informs him it’s past Gil’s curfew and he must get home quickly.

posted January 22, 2004 01:38 PM (Politics) (23 comments) #


Suspected Terrorist
TV Update: Monk back, 24 bad, American Beauty great, Zim good
Unintelligent Design
Shorter State of the Union
Liberate Libertarianism
Visiting Libertopia: The Magical Power of Property
Aaron Swartz: The Interview
Why Raise Children?
Freedom of Speech, or The DeCSS Haiku
The Media vs. The Facts
Trippi Dumps Dean


Some questions. Some of the above does not make any sense.

Bluejean: Well, we support strong property rights here in Libertopia (the government shouldn’t interfere with something as important as property) so all the different gun inventions are owned.

Talking about patents. Ok…

When we first started, the government held an auction to decide who would get the inventions, and Gil bought all the gun-related ones.

I’ve never heard a libertarian advocate that the gov’t should be able to auction off others’ patents. (Assuming that guns were not invented by a Libertopian citizen, who later sold the patent right to the gov’t.)

Well, Gil turned out to be a little paranoid, so he enforced his property rights to get back all existing guns and ensure no more were ever created.

Here’s where you start to lose me. Gil may own the patent on the guns, but the individual gun owners have a property right with respect to the guns that they do own. I doubt that Gil would have a right to violate other’s property rights by simply taking their guns away. Gil would have to purchase the guns in addition to the patents. And in a libertarian society, as the supply of guns went down, Gil would be paying higher and higher prices for guns. If Gil’s goal (using his apparently infinite wealth) were to acquire all the guns, there would be a point where he would have to part with a significant portion of his wealth in order to acquire the last gun. (If supply and demand has any meaning in Libertopia.)

So really you can only get a gun if you’re a friend of Gil.

And what is to stop a friend of Gil’s from selling a gun to another for X - Y, where X is the amount that Gil is willing to pay for the last gun and Y is the minimum amount of profit that the buyer of the gun from Gil’s friend is willing to make to sell the gun back to Gil?

Given the fallacies apparent in this paragraph, the rest seems to unravel. For the above to actually work, you need a gov’t that is decidedly non-Libertarian and will allow Gil to violate others’ property rights and forces others to sell their guns to Gil for less than the market value of the gun.

If I’ve misinterpreted the statements above, perhaps you should look into a rewrite?

posted by Chris Karr at January 22, 2004 02:20 PM #

In my version of Libertopia, there are no patent restrictions on guns. However, most people live in condominiums with security guards hired by the condo management, so nobody needs to have a privately owned gun. Which is a good thing, because a standard clause in the condo associations’ bylaws prohibits any resident from carrying or storing firearms on the premises. One could, of course, sneak a gun into one’s home, just in case the security guards screw up, but there’s another clause in the bylaws that permits the security guards to search any apartment at any time for dangerous substances….

posted by Seth Gordon at January 22, 2004 02:29 PM #

Chris, since guns were already invented by the time Libertopia was founded and the inventor didn’t live in Libertopia, they held an auction. (This is by analogy to the spectrum auctions some libertarians have advocated.)

I don’t think taking the guns is too hard to believe, since the government routinely takes unauthorized copyrighted material and gives it to the copyright holder. (Example: Negativland’s U2.) I don’t know for surehow copyright-is-property libertarians feel about this practice, though, but I assume they support it.

Gil is insane and has no friends.

Presumably Seth’s version of Libertopia is a joke, because it sounds like a gun control police state.

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 22, 2004 03:43 PM #

Chris Karr wrote: I’ve never heard a libertarian advocate that the gov’t should be able to auction off others’ patents.

Moreover, many would reject the very concept of patents. I realize Aaron uses the term in reference to the lower-right, most of whom do support the ‘intellectual property’ meme, so perhaps I should be barking up a different tree.

Aaron, what would you call someone south of most of America’s ‘liberal’ but west of your ‘libertarian’?

posted by at January 22, 2004 03:45 PM #

Umm, where did you get the idea that a libertarian gov’t would do things like auction off the patents for things that have already been invented? Find me one libertarian who thinks that the gov’t should auction the patent for the wheel or a gun for that matter that neither the gov’t or its citizens invented. Libertarian gov’ts are more likely let the patent remain expired (or non-existent) so that its libertarian citizens can compete at making wheels better and cheaper than their competitor citizens.

Also, your implication that libertarians view physical property the same as intellectual property is bunk. The gov’t taking a citizen’s physical property is a clear violation of the most fundamental property rights that libertarians advocate.

Ok, so Gil has no friends. You have completely ignored my point about supply and demand. As the guns become fewer in number, the price rises. And given that you have a nation of libertarians, the last one to sell will take Gil for all he’s worth. So, you either have Gil taking all the guns and becoming poor, with the last gun seller taking all of Gil’s remaining money (assuming Gil’s goal is to own all the guns) — or Gil not getting all the guns and keeping some of his money — or you have something happening in Libertopia that is impossible, given your construction of the place.

I think that the piece above suffers from three fatal flaws. The first flaw is your emulation of Al Franken in attempting to make your case against libertarianism. Franken is funny and entertaining, but he makes poor cases against those he is railing against as he makes mistakes in oversimplifying while trying to tell a story, rather than present a rigorous case why what he thinks is right or wrong. (His idea that the media picks sides on the right-left political spectrum is an example of this.)

Second, you’re making too many mistakes by misusing metaphors for things that are really different. Your idea that a patent holder can take his inventions away from people who have come by them honestly and comparing that to copyright law and enforcement is simply wrong. A better comparison would be that Gil could prevent others from making and selling new guns, but not the one above that implies Gil can take people’s guns away because he holds a patent.

Finally, I doubt that you do not understand libertarianism, but the piece above is full of enough things that run counter to libertarian philosophy that I have to wonder. The example that you’ve modelled above sounds more like a crony-capitalist state where Gil is able to get the gov’t to violate others’ rights to suit his needs. The vision above is not libertarian by any stretch of imagination.

Libertarianism is something that needs a good look. I know many who overstate its value and utility, but the approach that you’re taking is not a way to do it. The “inheritance tax” bit you posted presented some real questions and challenges for the philosophy, but so far Libertopia has failed on those counts.

posted by Chris Karr at January 22, 2004 04:27 PM #

I consider myself lower-left, which is probably the term the unnamed poster was looking for.

I got the auction idea from Adam Thierer, who says “markets and property rights [serve as the foundation] to openness, ideas, expression, knowledge, culture, diversity, and democracy” and thus advocates auctioning off spectrum to private owners instead of letting everyone use it.

Why does Gil get to take away guns I own? Because, I don’t actually own them, I stole them from him! By creating a gun, I stole Gil’s idea. Surely the government must be permitted to give stolen items back to their rightful owner!

I’m pretty sure that this is the law in the US as well. I don’t have firsthand knowledge as I do with copyright, but a quick Internet search finds that NetZero asked Juno to surrender everything that infringed its patent for destruction, I doubt they would have done this unless there was precedent.

I agree that not all libertarians believe that magically calling something property makes it so. If you don’t believe in intellectual property, then this piece is not for you. But if you do, and you follow your belief to its conclusion, you get Libertopia.

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 22, 2004 05:27 PM #

Even Libertopia cannot avoid having mentally illness so there would be a ready pool of suicidal would-be martyrs to ‘shock and awe’ Gil and Gil-clones into submission.

posted by Don Park at January 22, 2004 07:03 PM #

No, no, no, Don, you’ve got it all wrong. Libertopia is inhabited only by perfectly rational “actors”. Mental unstability (otherwhise known as “communsism”) does not exist in Libertopia. ;-)

posted by Már Örlygsson at January 22, 2004 07:27 PM #

While IP and spectrum rights are both public goods, I think that while a libertarian gov’t would be willing to auction a rivalous good (spectrum), the same libertarian would say that it would be absurd for the gov’t to artificially create a monopoly situation in granting a monopoly out of thin air (as in your gun patent), and auctioning that right to any single entity. I still hold that in the situation you have created, a true libertarian gov’t (as opposed to a crony-capitalist gov’t) would encourage competition by allowing everyone to make guns and allowing a competitive market for guns to form. According to my libertarian buddy, some libertarians view patents as immoral gov’t intervention, while others support patents as long as they encourage innovation and competition. I haven’t heard of any libertarians who would view patent rights as fundamental property rights as you have described. Especially when originally granting patents to people who had no hand in creating the technology patented.

Another thing in your post that bugs me is your false dichotomy with respect to intellectual property. You state that if you don’t believe in IP, then Libertopia is not yoor place. But if you do believe in IP, then Libertopia is its logical outcome. The problem is that there are plenty of alternatives between the two. One can believe that there are IP rights and that they are not absolute property rights. Is Libertopia the logical conclusion if one thinks that there is no problem with IP rights as originally envisioned by the 1790’s US gov’t (limited term for copyright and limited terms for patents)? In your interpretation of libertarianism, is the idea of limited IP rights incompatible? The extremes seem okay, so how about the middle?

posted by Chris Karr at January 22, 2004 08:22 PM #

It’s easy to create an argument you can win when you write both sides.

posted by James at January 22, 2004 09:11 PM #

Aaron, I think Seth Gordon’s version with the condo apartments (see comment above) is simpler and more to the point than your story.

Yours is a nice try though, but I think you may be reaching a bit too far, trying to squeeze too many different nuanced issues into it (ie. I.P. vs. physical property - rivalrous vs non-rivalrous goods, etc.).

Just my few cents.

posted by Már Örlygsson at January 22, 2004 09:26 PM #

Chris, spectrum is essentially non-rivalrous and I think even libertarians who acknowledge this believe it should be auctioned (e.g. the folks at the Manhattan Institute). (I think they’re crazy too, but maybe they’re just crony-capitalists.)

And when I say “believe in intellectual property” I mean “believe that intellectual works should be owned with the same moral and legal strength as physical objects”. Of course there are many libertarians and non-libertarians who believe in some form of copyright or patent law as a practical — I’m simply discussing those that believe in the property equivalence, and thus the moral imperative.

I think libertarians who believe in intellectual property (as defined above) are more common than you expect, but in any event, this piece was directed at them.

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 22, 2004 10:20 PM #

Spectrum is non-rivalous until your competitor decides that he’d rather sabotage your frequency by drowning out your signal and capturing your listeners instead of spending the time to build and promote their own part of the spectrum.

Just to clarify, but the libertarian buddy I mentioned in my previous post worked for some time at the Cato Institute, pretty much the center of the libertarian universe. According to him, the Cato folks were either against patents, or grudgingly accepted them as a tool to spur innovation. I didn’t ask about their thoughts on copyright, though. Of course, this probably doesn’t apply at all to the knee-jerk libertarians that Seth originally mentioned on Usenet.

Also, for what it’s worth, the Cato Institute suggested that Congress should:

“take the constitutional principle of ‘‘promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts’’ seriously, but don’t extend copyright protections far beyond reasonable terms.”


If you’re going to debunk libertarianism, you might as well not waste your time with the fringes and take on the credible ones and not waste your time with the nuts.

My friend suggests reading “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” by Robert Nozick if want an honest discussion and critique of libertarianism.

posted by Chris Karr at January 22, 2004 11:04 PM #


Uh, you are aware that of all the systems discussed above, the only one which would provide favourable dispatches when fully realised in a pure-no-other-theory-manner is Communism, right?

posted by Firas at January 23, 2004 12:31 AM #

Aaron wrote: I consider myself lower-left, which is probably the term the unnamed poster was looking for.

No, I knew about that one. The political compass which popularized this mapping labels the bottom edge ‘libertarian’; a (relatively) common term for your politics is ‘left-libertarian’.

posted by at January 23, 2004 02:22 AM #

One of the concepts behind libertarianism is that they want the gov’t to be small above all else. IP/spectrum laws are just too damn easy to break (see P2P, any UI code that breaks Apple’s patents, any moron with a soldering iron and some radio components), and they victimless (nothing is taken away from anyone else (see Jefferson’s idea == candle meme)). Only a large, intrusive gov’t could hope to enforce IP/spectrum law.

Property is important in Libertopia, but not so important that giving up the other principle of Freedom.

posted by Myers at January 23, 2004 09:13 AM #

Heh heh heh heh.

Good job.

This is very nearly the same as the argument that I came up with, once upon a time, which was the final straw that broke me out of libertarianism. My version of it was a space station that had been built by Gil, and some settlers had signed a contract with Gil in order to move in and live and work there, and then those settlers gave birth to children who, while perfectly Free in the libertarian sense, did not have their own supply of oxygen and had to do whatever Gil said if they wanted a continuous influx of oxygen. Naturally Gil’s rules included “No building your own oxygen generators!”.

posted by Zooko at January 23, 2004 10:24 AM #

Zooko: A good book that touched on this was The Cat Who Walks Though Walls by Robert Heinlein.

Also Aaron, what does this political map look like that you keep referering to (“I’m on the lower-left of the political spectrum”). The one I keep thinking of is from World’s Smallest Political Quiz, but from what you have said that doesn’t match up.

posted by Myers at January 23, 2004 10:33 AM #

It’s the political compass which is essentially the libertarian chart tilted 45 degrees left.

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 23, 2004 12:05 PM #

Good job highlighting the emptiness of the “never initiate force” bogosity when the speaker endlessly redefines “initiate force” for their own benefit.

posted by Jeff Darcy at January 23, 2004 09:04 PM #

This is one of the most odd misunderstandings of Libtertarianism I’ve ever read. I’m embarrassed for you, Aaron!

As an ex-Libertarian, I can assure you that physical property rights are fundamental to the philosophy of Libertarianism. The idea that someone would be able to confiscate physical property based on intellectual property within a Libertarian society is simply laughable.

Take a look at some of the links under ‘Con IP’ and ‘Other Con IP’ at Kinsella’s IP page. This PDF article is an excellent statement of a Libertarian case against IP at all.

I’m sure there are some Libertarians out there who cling to some idea of IP, but I doubt you can find even one who advocates IP of the sort you describe. Confiscating physical property? Not the Libertarians!

posted by Phillip Winn at January 26, 2004 08:42 AM #

Phillip, the Kinsella page is written in a distinctly outsider tone (like my article): here’s why you good libertarians should stop believing in IP. The PDF article says that most libertarian defense of IP comes from a natural-rights belief, which he summarizes as “creations of the mind are entitled to protection just as tangible property is.”

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 26, 2004 12:27 PM #

Kinsella writes in that style because of a long tradition of writing in that style, especially for that journal. I voted for Kinsella in the 2000 election, and I assure you that he was on the Libertarian ticket.

There is a big difference between writing in the style of an outsider - as Kinsella does - and knowing so little about your subject that you make people more familiar with the subject laugh, as you have done. ;-)

posted by Phillip Winn at January 27, 2004 08:37 AM #

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