Subject: Re: Fwd: Wall Street article on a new Cooperative
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
Date: Thu, 22 Apr 2004 18:34:59 +0900

>>>>> "Benjamin" == Benjamin J Tilly <" <>> writes:

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

I think there are a lot of people who would like to know what your
opinions are, though.

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

No, it's not "dishonest".  This is just the same point as one you
agreed with: because they're not dishonest, you have to phrase the
discrepancy in terms they will recognize as a discrepancy.  A liar,
on the other hand, would realize immediately that you're on to him.

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

If we're financing a public project in a democracy, in fact, I can.
There are some distributions of the tax burden that will cause the
referendum on the project to fail, leaving everyone worse off.

And there's a well-known theorem due to Ramsey that says to minimize
distortion due to taxation you tax the person whose behavior is least
elastic most.  Granted, the reasoning is Paretian only in spirit.  To
easily demonstrate a Pareto improvement requires lump-sum transfers,
which undermines the whole idea of distortionary taxes (lump-sum
transfers are defined to be non-distortionary).

And of course if you just want to rob Steve to pay Ben, Pareto says
nothing.  But I think there are interesting restrictions that Pareto
places on "behavior in the public interest," and especially in a
context where you can't know what others want/need.

    Ben> I am an atheist who lives in a country that was not founded
    Ben> as a democracy, and was raised in another country that was
    Ben> founded even farther from any democratic ideals.

Your point might be?  Mine was simply that there are moderately
systematic ways to answer the questions that a lot of people subscribe
to, in some places constituting a majority, and having serious claim
to represent at least part of "the public interest."

To me, "not imposing my view of the public interest on others" means
that I have to start by assuming that they do know what's good for
them, and that it is part of the public interest, even if I disagree.
I may decide that they're misled about the consequences of what they
think they want, or that there are contradictions in the positions
they espouse, and bugfix :-) the definition of public interest.  But
that's a very serious thing.

    Ben> I also spot that most problematic phrase, "a moral answer".
    Ben> Which is yet another spectacularly undefined thing.

That's why I used the indefinite article.  My point was just that most
people "know Right when they see it", and since they end up "knowing"
different things, we're back to political workability.

    >> 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.

    Ben> I'm unfamiliar with Rawls.

Harvard philosopher, most famous work is "A Theory of Justice."
Proposed the "veil of ignorance" (you know everything about human
society except your own name) as a means to investigate the meaning of
"justice."  His conclusion was that there are primary goods such as
freedom and access to employment, and that "justice" means a society
in which the distribution of primary goods is according to a maximin
principle:  maximize the primary goods of the person with the least of

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

"Intrinsic meaning"?  What's that?

Bernard Lang posed the question of "who is the public?  City,
province, country, world?"  I would answer that "the public is
composed of those who interact with you, directly or indirectly."  The
"bigger" the public project proposed, the weaker the indirect
interaction needed to relate different segments of "the public".
Conversely, the weaker the ability of "cultural context" to imbue our
agreement with "meaning" (ie, relevant to the "public interest"), as
the shared context becomes less.

    >> 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.

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

Well, if I find a better method I'll blow up my graven idol.

    >> 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....

    Ben> Indisputable?  There is a contrary argument that having
    Ben> ownership interests in software provides incentives for
    Ben> maintainance and ongoing development.

My "ceteris paribus" is pretty strong here: _assuming that somehow the
software gets written_, it's good if it is freely distributable.  I
guess that's really too weak to be "the open source position."  ESR
does often argue that for 80% of the software in existence, it's just
_stupid_ to keep it closed, but my implicit claim that that's the
whole argument was over the top.

    Ben> Now I don't buy [the argument "But who will pay the
    Ben> programmers?"], and I doubt that you do, but there are people
    Ben> who *would* argue that, and there is no shortage of public
    Ben> policy questions in which similar lines of reasoning are
    Ben> taken very seriously.

Of course I buy that argument.  I just think there will be plenty of
FLOSS written anyway, and that the spillovers more than make up for
any loss in incentive.  I think it seriously misses the real point,
which is that if we abolish property in software, we also abolish the
price signal for the value of the software being written.  That
worries me.

As for the other "public policy questions", software is unique in its
production conditions.  In what other field of manufacturing does a
_single use_ of a product involve making fresh copies of the product
every second?  (I'm referring to EMACS, Eighty Megabytes And Constantly
Swapping---every page fault is a copy!  What the heck, put your swap
on a network file system, ISTR this is possible with Linux, now you're
_distributing_ fresh copies every second!)

Try _that_ with your BMW 750, or your George Bush Memorial Building.

Institute of Policy and Planning Sciences
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.