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Jan 20, 2010

The Free Brigade

"At its core, belief in capitalism is belief in mankind." -Johan Norberg

"...capitalism is not merely the 'practical,' but the only moral system in history." -Ayn Rand

One of the great themes of speculative writing is post-scarcity. Capitalism is inherently an economic system for conditions of scarcity. Many science fiction writers have explored the idea that technology should allow us to create a future in which the necessities of life are abundant and money will become a thing of the past (Star Trek example).

In New York Times Calls Free Brigade’s Bluff by Jonathan Fields, he wrote, "Despite the ballyhoo of the Free Brigade...there is no free." Apparently "the free brigade" refers to people who have suggested that (all?) information distributed on the internet should (could?) be given away for free.

I suspect that for Fields "there is no free" means that if you want to read newspaper articles that are written by professional journalists then someone has to pay those professionals. Clearly there is some free: the internet now has large amounts of free content and ad-supported content. These days, people have choices. Do I want free internet content or do I want to pay a professional for professional content?

Jonathan Fields seems concerned that once people get a taste of free content on the internet then they expect everything to be free and they will stop paying for professionally-produced content. Speaking of free content, here is some from Wikipedia:

"Competition is important in capitalist economies because it leads to innovation and more reasonable prices as firms that charge lower prices or improve the quality of their production can take buyers away from its competitors."

The publishing industry is going through a kind of shakeout in which everyone is adapting to internet technology. In the era of print publishing, content and content distribution was expensive. In the internet era the economic landscape for "intellectual content" has shifted. Personally, I wish both the "free brigade" and the "non-free brigade" well. I suspect that there continues to be huge inefficiencies in the print publishing industry. I'd like to see an economist step forward and provide an honest estimate of the percentage of revenues in the print publishing industry that goes to content producers.

If "free market" capitalism cannot provide us with the journalists we need then why not switch over to a new model? I'd gladly take on-demand internet news from an expanded National Public Radio over "free market content producers" like The New York Times and Judith Miller.

I have similar sentiments about the print publishing industry and science fiction. Rather than being subjected to the decisions of a few companies about what constitutes "print worthy content" I hope we can devise new systems that allow a much wider selection of fiction to become available on the internet. If "free market" capitalism cannot find a way to channel payment to authors when science fiction becomes widely available on the internet then I'd be willing to try new strategies such as a government-funded system that would financially support creators of cultural works.

We just went through a century during which trillions in national treasure were funneled through taxation towards transportation infrastructure. We could do the same to support professional writers and the creation of internet content, even if that content is available for free via the internet. Let's think in new directions rather than lament the passing of obsolete modes of production and distribution.

Image. Source, World Bank Photo Collection.

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