I am a brave explorer. I discover a new continent. To my surprise, the land mass is completely uninhabited, and I am the first human to set foot on this new earth. I mark my discovery on a map. A year later, replicas of the map have circled the world. I attempt to establish a colony on my continent, but it fails. Meanwhile, other countries sponsor expensive colonization efforts that net billions. They profit from my discovery.
Artists may have experienced a similar thing when they labor over their creations for hours, only to have them be stolen.
There is something special about information. Here is what it is: the cost to create the first copy is high, the cost to create subsequent copies is virtually nothing. See below:
Some products are much harder to create as originals than duplicates. For example, a book can take years to write. But once the book is written, it takes seconds to copy the word or PDF file.
To make things more clear, here are some more examples:
Scripts for performances are information because they can be easily copied. Video recordings of performances are information because they can be easily copied. But actual live performances themselves, like Broadway plays, are not information, because the cost to put on the first performance is about the same as the cost to put on subsequent performances (saving for improvements in skill).
In economics, there is the problem called the free rider problem. This describes a problem of goods, that cannot be made excludable. You find people taking a “free ride,” or consuming the product without paying for it. This leads to market demand that inadequately reflects actual desire.
Take, for example, a lighthouse. A lighthouse provides information (that a shore is nearby) to any passing ships. But can you force ships to pay for this information? Not without coercion you can’t. The cost to provide information to one passing ship is exactly the same as to provide the same information to all passing ships. So the question is: which ship owner is going to pay to build the lighthouse?
Lighthouses, like fireworks, are the classic “econ 101” cases of free-rider goods. This is hardly a new idea. But my contribution is to argue that information is the only thing (that I have not listed before in this manifesto), that exhibits the free rider problem. I argue that all other, non-information goods are excludable, and therefore, it is possible to compel free-riders to pay for them without coercion.
I am not even saying that all forms of information are non-excludable, only that only information can be non-excludable. Even some information is excludable, for example, certain softwares have controls that make them very difficult to pirate.
The thing that most purely distinguishes information is that it’s non-rival. Laid out like a math equation, with ⊆ meaning “a subset of” –
Non-excludable ⊆ Non-rival = Information.
I made it quite clear in part 2 what I think of the concept of “public goods.” With the information outlined so far, I think I can create out a superior version of the public good grid:
In the old days, there was little separation between social networking goods and natural utilities, because information travelled via roads. Even today, the social networks are the same goods that are serviced via the natural utility of fiber-optic cables.
There are a few governmental controls that have been instituted to fix the free-rider problem that sometimes accompanies information.
The most obvious one is copyright and patent protections. This grants a temporary monopoly to the original creators. It shifts the profits away from those who would have copied, back to the innovators.
You may also be thinking of libraries, schools, and public broadcasting. I’m not on principle against tax dollars going to these things, but they have problems I’ll get into in a second.
The government can sponsor arts and invention directly. I personally don’t trust the government very much with art. I also don’t trust them to pick which specific inventions to devote their resources to.
But my distrust has a work-around. Large, difficult initiatives, that require one to overcome never-before-seen challenges will lead to inventions as a byproduct. For example, many inventions came from times of total war (sometimes initially as weapons).
Does this mean that wars are necessary? Certainly, there’s a way of generating inventions that doesn’t result in countless human death? There is. It’s called space exploration. NASA is great, because of its incredible ability to generate spin-off technologies.
Patents are private information creation, NASA and funding of the sciences is public information creation, and public broadcasting is public information dissemination. But there’s a dark side to all of this: the ease of overuse.
Our copyright and patent system is an absolute mess. It seems to have forgotten the “temporary” part of “temporary monopoly.” Corporations like Disney lobby to have copyright extended ad infinitum. They become rent-seekers, sitting on top of ancient IP. Even worse, patent trolls generate nothing useful to society, and they make it dangerous to invent anything for risk of accidentally incurring their wrath.
Government information dissemination can quickly support propaganda initiatives for the government’s agenda. Schools and public broadcasting can be exceedingly biased in favor of the political groups that most support the government.
And finally, NASA, once a center of innovation, is now stagnant, as Charles Murray put it:
The race to the moon was whether we would get there before NASA became just another government bureaucracy.
The average age of a NASA engineer during Apollo was 28. Now it’s 47. This is very sad. Younger people are more innovative and risk-taking. Older people yearn for stability. Government agencies tend towards entrenched, status-quo, useless change-aversion. If I ran Nasa, I’d try to cut its average age in half. And then triple its budget.