Subject: Re: Fwd: Wall Street article on a new Cooperative
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <stephen@xemacs.org>
Date: Wed, 21 Apr 2004 12:45:55 +0900

>>>>> "Ben" == Benjamin J Tilly <" <ben_tilly@operamail.com>> writes:

    Ben> "Stephen J. Turnbull" <stephen@xemacs.org> wrote:

>>>>> "Ben" == Ben J Tilly <ben_tilly@operamail.com> writes:

    >> Jeez, Ben, you should know better than to segue from "the
    >> public interest" to "acting against some individual's personal
    >> interest" that way.  The public contains a lot of individuals,
    >> and sometimes Individual A's interest correlates closely with
    >> "the public's", and sometimes it doesn't, by definition of
    >> "individual".

    Ben> Why should I know better?  I don't even know what "the
    Ben> public interest" really _is_.

"Really"?  Of course (IMO, see below) you don't.  But IMHO you are a
damn good citizen, and I conclude you are implicitly behaving in
accord with some pretty coherent ideas of "what the public interest
is".  In fact, admitting that you don't know "reality" is part of
being a good citizen as I define it.

    Ben> I tend to assume that others don't either, and when they say
    Ben> "public interest" they really mean "the interest that I wish
    Ben> the public had".

That's intellectually dishonest if they know what they're doing, and
my point is precisely that I perceive no intellectual dishonesty here.
Simply pointing out the discrepancy is not going to enlighten people
who don't see any discrepancy in the first place.

    Ben> I used the phrase "public interest" the first time around to
    Ben> match his wording, and then switch phrasings to what I
    Ben> consider more honest for the rest of the discussion.

But someone who doesn't know the difference is not going to realize
that, and will simply read "my interest" == "public interest" and
evaluate on that basis throughout.

    >> Life's like that, ya know?  Much of the time the "problem" here
    >> is just that Individual A succumbed to the temptation to
    >> confuse his personal interest with "the public interest" just
    >> because everybody he hangs out with is like him.

    Ben> Thank you for eloquently explaining my opinion of what people
    Ben> really mean by public interest.

Thank you for your unfailing good humor!

    Ben> But we are still left with the question, do you think that
    Ben> the phrase, "the public interest" has any real meaning beyond
    Ben> its rhetorical use?

Yes, I do.  Pareto optimality (with preferences properly defined as
not constrained to the economic sphere) is definitely in the public
interest, so there is a minimal level of "real meaning."

    Ben> For instance, how do we determine which of many possible
    Ben> Pareto optimal outcomes is more in the public interest
    Ben> than the others?

There are a number of answers.  "Democratically" and "according to
God's law" are two currently popular answers.  Just because a problem
doesn't have a unique scientific solution doesn't mean it doesn't have
a moral answer, and just because something doesn't have a unique moral
answer doesn't mean we can't come up with workable political procedures.

I tend to agree with Rawls that the public interest is in protecting
people's access to "primary goods", although I would define those
somewhat differently from Rawls.

    >> Who's to say that said corporation isn't acting "in the public
    >> interest" most of the time?

[...]
    Ben> Instead corporations claim to always be acting in their
    Ben> _shareholders_ interest.

I didn't mention what they claimed.  As I wrote above, I believe there
is such a thing as "the public interest" and that it's more real than
Santa Claus but less real than software freedom.  I think the questions
of "is corporate behavior on balance in the public interest?" and "can
we improve The Rules so that corporate behavior is more in the public
interest?" have meaning---and answers---beyond the sum of your
interest and mine.

    Ben> Such claims tend to become particularly forceful when
    Ben> they are actually acting in the manager's interest and
    Ben> that interest divergest from the actual long-term
    Ben> interest of the shareholders.  But let's not talk about
    Ben> CEO compensation...

No, let's not.  That's the shareholders' problem, and not a matter of
the public interest.  The public interest goes as far as providing
(criminal) laws against fraud, malfeasance and misfeasance, and civil
courts where the shareholders can sue when they disagree with managers
over what the contract "really" meant.

    >> Of course you know all that, that's why you cited _The Logic of
    >> Collective Action_.  But let's not lead the lambs astray.

    Ben> But stray lambs result in tasty lambchops, why avoid that???
    Ben> Oh, they might not result in lambchops for _me_, in which
    Ben> case it is not in my interest. ;-)

Heh.  You know what political wolves eat.

    >> Of-course-I-support-free-software---its-in-MY-interest-ly y'rs,

    Ben> It is in mine as well.  And I think that it would probably be
    Ben> in the public interest - if I could figure out what that
    Ben> means.  But perhaps I'm just being egocentric there.

I used to try to take the ethical position you espouse, but discovered
that I would persist in thinking in terms of the "public interest",
and (embarrassingly enough) that my understanding of what that is was
quite inadequate.  I'm much happier having given in and postulated
that it does exist, and that since I don't _and can't_ know, I have a
moral responsibility to research and refine my approximation.

So the "open source position", which translates into economics more or
less as "ceteris paribus, more free software is good", is well-nigh
indisputable.  The question is can we go beyond that and argue for
software freedom as a Rawlsian primary good?  I'm sure the answer is
yes.  Can we go yet further and argue that intellectual property law
should not apply to software?  I would say no, that is not in the
public interest.  But many would say yes.  We'll see....

-- 
Institute of Policy and Planning Sciences     http://turnbull.sk.tsukuba.ac.jp
University of Tsukuba                    Tennodai 1-1-1 Tsukuba 305-8573 JAPAN
               Ask not how you can "do" free software business;
              ask what your business can "do for" free software.