Sunday, May 10, 2009

Nyet to philosopher kings

A key axiom of capitalism is that the distributed, decentralized consumers and entrepreneurs are more effective at optimizing an economy than any attempt at centralized control.

As Adam Thierer (formerly of Cato) recounted on Friday, cybervisionaries like George Gilder and Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the a wired world would enable decentralized empowerment. (Sound familiar?)

However, Thierer notes that Stanford (now Harvard) law prof Larry Lessig was far more pessimistic in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Thierer summarizes the various reasons for the failure of Lessig’s predictions:

Had there been anything to the Lessig’s “code-is-law” theory, AOL’s walled-garden model would still be the dominant web paradigm instead of search, social networking, blogs, and wikis. Instead, AOL — a company Lessig spent a great deal of time fretting over in Code — was forced to tear down those walls years ago in an effort to retain customers, and now Time Warner is spinning it off entirely. Not only are walled gardens dead, but just about every proprietary digital system is quickly cracked open and modified or challenged by open source and free-to-the-world Web 2.0 alternatives. How can this be the case if, as Lessig predicted, unregulated code creates a world of “perfect control”?
Thierer reacts to an earlier essay (also at Cato) by Declan McCullagh of CBSNews and CNET, also critiquing the Lessig book.

McCullach attacks the philosophical basis of Lessig’s critique:
Lessig goes out of his way to assail libertarianism and “policy-making by the invisible hand.” He prefers what probably could be called technocratic philosopher kings, of the breed that Plato’s The Republic said would be “best able to guard the laws and institutions of our State–let them be our guardians.” These technocrats would be entrusted with making wise decisions on our behalf, because, according to Lessig, “politics is that process by which we collectively decide how we should live.”
I’ve heard Lessig speak a few times. He always struck me as a smart guy. However, his work never struck me as scholarship, merely opinion couched as advocacy. His presentations tended to assume the audience agreed with him, rather than using empirical evidence to support his positions. (As with open source, a lot of preaching to the faithful.)

Compared to Lessig, I was always more impressed by the work of Pam Samuelson (a Berkeley law prof). Both took similar positions on key copyright issues, but Samuelson’s positions were based on real evidence. Maybe that’s while Samuelson is still an IP expert while Lessig has abandoned IP to move on to the next crusade.

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