Thursday, April 23, 2009

Taking a Lesson from Jazz: Libertarian Cooperation

I really like jazz music.

Part of the time, I would even consider myself a “jazz musician”, so I probably should like it. But, over the years, it's occurred to me that I have a more subtle reason for liking it than many of my colleagues. While most (including me) seem to be challenged by its musical complexity and diversity, what has always made the music most fascinating to me is it's uniquely American, or rather, it's laissez-faire nature. Let me explain, for I do have a broader point to make here as well...

Jazz is the only musical art-form, and possibly the only organization of performers into a group dynamic in any medium, which truly exalts each individual performer as an indispensable part of the whole.

For most musical genres, from orchestras to rock bands, the focus is always on the “leader”, but jazz at its best works nearly opposite. Musicians work under a loosely organized structure – a lot like social or cultural norms – but the end result is the product of performers making their own, largely unplanned, decisions at any given moment. The medium is entirely about improvisation, and the end result isn’t always what you expect, it’s not always what you personally might have wanted (other times it’s far better than you could have ever imagined), but it is always the aggregate expression of free choices.

Sound familiar? As I see it, much of jazz is simply free market philosophy applied to music, but shh… don’t tell the beatniks!

But beyond all that, working in jazz groups taught me a valuable lesson about life which I wish more libertarians were mindful of in general… And that is this:

Individuals utilizing their respective talents together to support a common goal are vastly superior to both individuals working alone and to groups working with no regard for the individuals involved.

Playing in jazz groups helped me to realize that no matter how talented an individual you might be, standing alone on a street corner blowing your modes just gets you weird looks and occasionally some chump-change tossed into old hats and instrument cases.

But... Combining forces with other like-minded (yet unique!) performers can lead to some of the greatest and most enduring creative works ever produced.

So what, you ask? Why is this even a relevant lesson anyway?

Because: While many libertarians recognize the main axiom above as true and important (and the main reason division of labor and free trade is the basis for real growth and human progress), a lot of us forget what it means in more direct sense. We forget to apply it in our worthwhile support of freedom.

Let's be honest, libertarians are great at a lot of things in general, but we’re pretty horrendous at presenting an organized front against the forces of tyranny. I used to chalk this up to the typical libertarian personality being so “individualist” that any effort at creating group activities really amounts to herding cats. In fact, I recently went on a minor mission to meet some other libertarians in Los Angeles and one person I’d contacted literally wrote back;

“… As a Libertarian, you can imagine I'm not much for group-think, and have never been much attracted to clubs or the like, so I haven't really sought them out, to be honest.”

I imagine a lot of libertarians feel that way. I know I do a lot of the time myself... However, I think it goes beyond a general mistrust of groups, which is a relatively healthy trait overall in my view. I actually suspect that more of it than we'd like to admit comes down to simple vanity. We are at root a group of iconoclasts, and I think most of us are proud of it. But for some, being an iconoclast is only fun if you can feel like you're the only one out there speaking truth to power. And I get that too I guess, but of all people, we should be best equipped to understand that it's not actually a “David vs. Goliath” situation here, but David vs. Goliath and his 200-million-man army. Simply going it alone – blogging, annoying friends & family, writing letters to the editor and harassing our elected “representatives”, etc. - is not going to make a meaningful dent in the ranks of the other side, much less the Goliath hiding behind them.

We shoot ourselves in the collective foot even more by the in-fighting amongst ourselves, which, although very important intellectually, is nothing short of catastrophic politically. I've never encountered a more pedantic group of people than in the libertarian community... And I am most certainly not exempt! This is a great thing in many respects. Being constantly challenged forces people to re-evaluate their views and question virtually every premise they hold daily. It means being less susceptible to fads, or to poorly thought out ideas, and means obtaining a deeper understanding of the world than most people even really aspire to obtain. However, when the world is crumbling around us, governments are moving towards a decidedly fascist direction and any meager value placed on liberty has been all but completely abandoned, it might be wise to put aside some of the more subtle debates. In the end, maybe you’re a CATO libertarian, or fan of the Chicago School, maybe you’re a hardcore Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist, maybe you’re a minarchist and a gold-bug or maybe you aren't really that far along in your philosophical development, but just get the sense that things are out of control right now... We will all have plenty to disagree about later, but right now the important thing is that everyone who fundamentally values liberty put the little squabbles aside and fights the big fight together.

What's worse I fear, is that the multitude of people who are more Statist in nature are exactly the opposite of iconoclasts. They have no problem, indeed they relish, working in groups; even, or perhaps especially, at the expense of their own individuality. This is obviously a tremendous benefit to the leaders of such organizations – they literally have millions of people ready and willing to do anything asked of them with no expectation that they will be uniquely recognized. These are ready-made mobs that leaders merely have to agitate and point in a general direction. It works remarkably well as we've seen again and again. But this mode of action has a tremendous flaw... With the majority of participants relying on a small oligarchy of leaders to tell them what to do, very few of the people involved contribute all that much to the whole, other than in relatively non-thinking man-power.

But here’s the good news: What works better than a mindless mob directed by a dictator or three, is a loosely-directed group of individuals who are each motivated to contribute their unique voice to the overall goal. As Samuel Adams said:

It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds”

Adams was right of course, but there’s a crucial element missing from that quote: Direction.

An unfocused minority, no matter how tireless sets no fires in any minds. Our intellectual focus, liberty, is no different than our Founding Fathers, but without additionally taking action to support that focus, I fear we will be no more effective than your average street-performer.

And that brings me full circle. What I've learned as a jazz musician, is that not only is there is no shame and no detriment to a person's individuality in forming groups, individuality can actually be highlighted and supported by complementary voices promoting similar goals. We all have different talents, different interests, we've all developed different skills and we live all over the world... By combining those talents, surely we have a chance at influencing the generally accepted philosophies of the public.

We don't all need to agree on everything. In fact, it's good that we don't; our strength is in our intellectual independence. But let's not forget that we are carrying the tune of liberty, and if we all play it together, people will stop and pay attention.

If we don't, then maybe it’s time to put out the hat.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Internet Piracy, victimless? Not quite, but more than you might think.

I started writing all this in the comments of link I just posted regarding the X-Men: Origins (Wolverine) movie being leaked to the public. Incidentally (full disclosure?) I have a good friend who did post production visual effects for that film.

The point I want to make here is not that Piracy is a "good" thing... it's obviously not, and it's obviously a violation of a property owner's right to decide what they want to do with the things they own, including who they want to see it and at what cost. If you own a record, or some music - or anything else, you should be allowed to distribute that on your terms. If you want to give it away, sell it for $10 or $1 million, trade for a box of girl scout cookies, or as so many rock'n'roller's do... for bad sex with some groupies in a seedy hotel room, you should be able to do that.

I am not here to defend theft - I am however here to discuss "harm". The first order problem with theft, is the violation of someone's will regarding the things they have rightfully come to acquire (including license rights to works of art). The second order problem is the physical or economic harm done to that individual by the thief.

Material goods are easy to understand. If I take your car - I've violated your rights, yes. But in doing so, I've also robbed you of a tangible piece of property which you were using to go to work, take your kids to school, take vacations, etc. That has harmed your quality of life. In addition, I have also robbed you of the money - and thus the time (a further violation of your natural rights) to accumulate the money through working - it took you to purchase the car.

When I am caught by the police and hauled into court to make restitution for my crimes against you - the Judge will look at the value of the car, and the harm to your lifestyle that has occurred as a result of my actions and require me to compensate you accordingly.

But what if a crime that violates your right to decide what you want with your property doesn't actually harm you in any of the second order ways? How do we deal with that?

If for example, the Piracy scandal I linked above involving the X-Men movie actually doesn't result in a net loss of ticket buyers at the theatre, as I suspect, how can you justify suing anyone but the initial violator of your will? Clearly, there was a breach of contract by the individual who leaked the copy of the movie. That individual needs to be punished, but what if as a result of his actions, there is no actual financial harm done to the movie studio? How do you quantify that?

Complex questions, to be sure... But let me shift gears to talk about the RIAA - because in their case the concept of harm begins to be more clear if you do a little research.

* * * * *

RIAA parable

Back in 2002, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) started suing just about everyone they could possibly think of - especially college kids and universities... I remember vividly as I was in college living in a dorm at the time!

They were shocked and dismayed that they made less money in 2002 than they did just a year or two earlier and falling into a convenient post hoc, ergo prompter hoc trap, they blamed the newfangled technology of the MP3 and internet downloads which had recently been made possible by sufficient improvements in internet speeds and sites like Napster & Kazaa.

Back in early 2002, the RIAA released this article explaining that their profits were down by about 4.1% from the previous year and which contained the following quote.

"This past year was a difficult year in the recording industry, and there is no simple explanation for the decrease in sales. The economy was slow and 9/11 interrupted the fourth quarter plans, but, a large factor contributing to the decrease in overall shipments last year is online piracy and CD-burning," said Hilary Rosen, President and CEO of the RIAA.

Hooray! The RIAA quickly and easily had a scapegoat, on which to blame their troubles...

This is great for the RIAA cause they could then also argue for government to get involved with protectionist laws, taxpayer funded anti-piracy campaigns and what really concerns me, impetus for regulating the internet. There's a shocker, the major corporations in a major industry wanting special protections against a scary new technology that might hurt their business model?? Nooo....

The problem is, what the RIAA forgot to tell anyone - and what they conveniently omitted from their reports were long-term new release data. In fact, again from the RIAA's own data, the major labels released nearly 12,000 fewer albums per year in 2000-01 (27,000) than they did in 1999 (38,900) and earlier.

To put that another way - the RIAA reduced their productive output by 11,900 units from 1999 to 2000. To put it another way still, they reduced their production by 30.6%.

AGAIN - their profits were only reduced by 4.1% over the same period!

So... think about it for a second, they dropped their output by over SEVEN TIMES the percent that they lost in revenue... If you apply the RIAA's own logic and their own numbers for 1999-2001, far from being "harmed" by Mp3 downloads, they were actually helped.

Incidentally, what got me thinking about this to begin with was the April (I think) 2003 issue of Wired Magazine discussing these same issues which I'd found in my roommate's car the other day on a drive out to the Burbank Ikea. Fun times...

At any rate, there's some serious problems with the RIAA numbers and the belie a larger point: It is very much in the RIAA's interest to cry foul and excessive harm as their sales dwindle by producing less marketable product year after year. They do release year-end reports every year with some statistics... I haven't really had the time yet to parse much of them to see whether or not the 1999-2000 trend remains the same for subsequent years. I imagine that they do however. One also has to factor in the change in the industry's overall product quality/diversity over that period too, something I'm not really capable of doing from my little computer.

RIAA critic George Ziemann compiles some data and expresses his take on this issue here.

The point is - we have to simply *TRUST* that the RIAA's claims of harm by MP3 Piracy are valid - in spite of their overwhelming incentive to protect themselves from the consequences of their own rather obviously bad business decisions. And based on the information they do provide, their numbers just aren't adding up...

* * * * *

Now, back to the MPAA... Same story, different names.

Part of the problem here is that the data is hard to collect, the industries aren't very forthcoming and the economic calculations are really rather difficult. However, as I see it, here are some facts:

1. The loss in profits, at least by the RIAA, can be fully explained by their drop in production - in fact, if their own numbers are accurate they're making a higher profit per unit sold than in the past... they're doing better, not worse, since MP3 file sharing began to increase in popularity.
2. Within the past 10-20 years technology has improved to such a degree that average people can now contribute to media in ways never before possible and people have more options than ever before. We can not only get media from the major record & film producers, but also from indie houses, unknown companies, random individual producers, international producers and virtually anyone with a camera and a computer. The major labels & studios are bound to experience some degradation of their brand from this competition. In other words, even though the net level of media content is increasing rapidly, the MPAA & RIAA are losing percentage of market-share (even while increasing their profits year to year per unit)
3. The MPAA & RIAA, as powerhouses of the media industry, are the ones losing market-share and therefore have the most incentive to protect their own asses. Historically, companies have done this by going to government and getting them to regulate, prosecute and otherwise make life miserable for smaller competitors.

Lastly, let me posit an idea through a little anecdote I told my buddy James this morning:

I recently downloaded and watched a pirated copy of a film, I won't say which one because I would rather not get sued. I'm a big ol' hypocrite - sure... Ok, but did I actually harm the makers of said film? Well... I would say... No.

Why? For two specific reasons...

First: Because I was *never* one of their customers and never would be. I had no intention of seeing the film in theatres, no intention of renting it or buying it on DVD and no intention even of watching it on TV if and when it came on. Why did I watch it? Because it was available for free and I wanted something mindless on in the background while I was working on some other projects. If it hadn't have been available... It wouldn't have mattered to me in the slightest.

Second: Because I did not, by downloading a copy, reduce the physically available supply of the film, thus preventing someone from buying or renting that movie if they had wanted to. The age of the internet and infinitely copyable content results in infinite abundance and unfortunately for some - infinitely reduced value in certain cases. I didn't want to see the movie in the theatre, and I didn't even care if I got a good copy... I really couldn't have cared less about the thing at all except that at the click of a button it was available, it did not *take away* from anyone else and I could fulfill my momentary desire to have some brainless entertainment playing as background noise.

In addition to that, I might also note that I did not do the pirating - that is kind of a technicality, sure, but I neither signed nor agreed to (by purchasing the film) implicitly any provisions on the particular film's viewing.  It was available, made so by someone else (who's relationship to the film studios and licensing provisions I am not privy to), and I don't particularly see how I'm liable for that merely as a viewer.  Likewise, if a radio station broadcast a particular song that they did not have the license to play, how could I be liable for listening to it - even if I chose to visit the radio station that was broadcasting it?  That's pretty analogous, I think, to visiting a website that is hosting movies or other music.

Now... The salient point here is that the MPAA would claim that someone like me would have gone to see the movie in the theatre or paid to rent the film if I hadn't been able to download it - this is patently untrue. And I suspect I'm not alone in this behavior... To declare damages, of course, the MPAA/RIAA would declare me as having been someone who would buy the product, but who decided to take it instead. If you multiply this by every single person who downloads movies & music, etc., you'd come up with the kinds of figures those organizations cite when trying to get laws passed. But the truth, I believe, is that they are claiming potential customers that they never had and never will have. Thus it's a largely fictitious loss in revenue!

Of course this is all speculation on everyone's part... And... what's worse, I don't have a solution to offer. I do want a world where people can protect their rights to decide what they want to do with the products of their labor - but a world where a college kid gets sued for $150,000 just for copying a file from one guy's computer over to his??

That's not good at all.