Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Argument from Theft

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 11, 2012

The argument from theft once again rears its ugly head, this time in an OER discussion forum.

On 01/11/2012 6:44 PM, Jacky Hood wrote:

There is an alternative: stop forcing people to pay for research, education, etc. How good is something that requires jail sentences and fines to get people to pay for it?

Payment for all goods, not just government goods, is enforced with fines or jail. If you walk into a grocery store and take food without paying, you will be fined or jailed, even though food is necessary for life. Indeed, the establishment of a system of jails and fines is one of the major ways government subsidizes private enterprise; try doing business in a country without a functioning police force or judiciary (Somalia, say) and you get a sense of how expense it would be without this subsidy.

Yes, if something is funded by taxpayers, it should be generally available. However, the backers of the 'awful' bill have a valid point. No free enterprise organization can compete against institutions whose 'investors' must put up the money or face fines and imprisonment. Similarly private enterprise cannot compete against products that are free or priced below cost.

The 'investors' are not forced to invest as though by some arbitrary third party. The 'investors' are the people of the nation who have engaged in a free vote and elected representatives who have enacted the sort of social system they find essential. This investment begins, as mentioned above, with a functioning police and court system. The private sector has also been vocal about its need for an educated workforce, and the people of the nation had additionally supplied this. Another service these investors provide to the private sector is publicly funded research.

I would be happy to see the private sector (aka 'free enterprise organization') 'compete' with the public sector, but only given a level playing field - ie., we can attribute to the public sector the costs that the private sector would be forced to pay in order to obtain free content, but we would require that the private sector pay for what the public sector currently provides it for free: police and courses, an education system, and a research program.

The private sector is not being somehow unfairly treated if the population of a country decides to remove a public good from the realm of free market competition. This is usually done in order to subsidize private enterprise in the first place. In such a case, privatizing the service and ending public investment in the program would end up costing more - that's why people have freely opted through democratic government to invest some of their tax money supporting it.

Someone gets to decide what govenment schools/materials/research gets done and those decisions are not necessarily the ones that the payers would choose

That's correct. In a democracy, decisions are made on the basis of "one person one vote". In a marketplace, decisions are made on the basis of "one dollar one vote" (and "ten dollars fifteen votes", etc). Naturally, the decisions made by the people with the most money will be different from the decisions made by the people with the most votes. But there is no good argument for favouring the decisions made by the people with the most money, as history shows they will make decisions in such a way as to make themselves even more money, usually at the expense of the public.

I've noticed that many academics favor taxpayer funding of art and science, but would balk at taxpayer funding of NASCAR races and bowling tournaments. The marketplace allows more choice for everyone.

No, the marketplace allows more choice for people with money.

It may be that the people, given the democratic choice (rather than one forced on them by the wealthy) would opt for more NASCAR and bowling. If so, then that is the correct decision. But my observation is that the people can generally be trusted. They are not perfect, but they are more trustworthy than the people with money.

Arguing that it's already been paid for so it should be open is a little like saying "if we already have slaves, we should make sure they do high quality work".  The better we make the results, the more we perpetuate the myth that it is OK to use force.

Again with the force argument. If you wish to work outside the domain of laws and police and courts, please be clear about this. Suggesting that measures put in place for the public good are some sort of slavery while measures put in place to protect the interests of private enterprise are something else is disingenuous.

The argument that 'taxation is theft' is dishonest and pernicious. It is propagated by those very people who have benefited the most from the protections offered by law. Measures that take a little bit of that wealth and spread it more widely are not some sort of slavery.  They are the dividend society receives for investing in, and enabling the profit of, the wealthy.

On that basis the argument that open educational resources are somehow 'unfair competition' is unfounded.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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