Subject: Re: Fwd: Wall Street article on a new Cooperative
From: "Benjamin J. Tilly " <>
Date: Thu, 22 Apr 2004 06:37:36 +0800

"Stephen J. Turnbull" <> wrote:
> >>>>> "Ben" == Benjamin J Tilly <" <>> writes:
>     Ben> "Stephen J. Turnbull" <> wrote:
>     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.

I have reasonably well developed ideas of what I would like
"the public interest" to mean on various topics.  But I try
not to impose my opinions onto others.

>     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.

Is it intellectually dishonest if they are doing it but are
not aware of doing that?  My impression is that humans are
great at rationalizing, and we all spend at least some of our
time doing things while remaining blissfully unaware of our
real motivations.

>     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.

Good point.  I should have been more clear on that up

>     >> 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."

I submit that the minimal level of "real meaning" is minimal
enough to be useless.  Can you say whether it is better to tax
me or you?  I thought not.

(For those who don't know what Pareto optimal is, a division
of resources is Pareto optimal if there is no way to make
everyone happier.  In other words in any change, someone must
wind up worse off.)

>     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 am an atheist who lives in a country that was not founded
as a democracy, and was raised in another country that was
founded even farther from any democratic ideals.  I also spot
that most problematic phrase, "a moral answer".  Which is yet
another spectacularly undefined thing.  If you want to
understand what I think, see
(and you'll see that I like your "workable political
procedures" comment).

> 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.

I'm unfamiliar with Rawls.

>     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.

Since we both share lots of cultural values with lots of
other people, there are agreements that we can come to on
those answers that will indeed be interesting to many
people beyond just us.  However I believe that the answers
that we agree on will not have intrinsic meaning, no matter
how much meaning they have within our cultural context.

>     >> 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.

Reification is certainly an easy answer.  But I'm unable
to accept it in this case.

> 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....

Indisputable?  There is a contrary argument that having
ownership interests in software provides incentives for
maintainance and ongoing development.  Even though it may
be nice to have the good freely available, creating a
property right for software is good in the long run.  This
is the sophisticated version of, "But who will pay the
programmers if software is free?"

Now I don't buy that argument, and I doubt that you do, but
there are people who *would* argue that, and there is no
shortage of public policy questions in which similar lines
of reasoning are taken very seriously.