Though most people aren’t aware of it, Friedrich Hayek in a 1949 article (“The Intellectuals and Socialism” [JSTOR: academic paywall; ungated version from the Mises Institute, with a crucial omission described below]) wondered aloud whether the existence of independent intellectuals, who could make a living due to copyright, was on balance a good thing. In the text (p. 420 of the law review version, 374 of the Mises Institute’s reprint) he wrote:
In the sense in which we are using the term, the intellectuals are in fact a fairly new phenomenon of history. Though nobody will regret that education has ceased to be a privilege of the propertied classes, the fact that the propertied classes are no longer the best educated and the fact that the large number of people who owe their position solely to the their general education do not possess that experience of the working of the economic system which the administration of property gives, are important for understanding the role of the intellectual. Professor Schumpeter, who has devoted an illuminating chapter of his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy to some aspects of our problem, has not unfairly stressed that it is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs and the consequent absence of first hand knowledge of them which distinguishes the typical intellectual from other people who also wield the power of the spoken and written word. It would lead too far, however, to examine here further the development of this class and the curious claim which has recently been advanced by one of its theorists that it was the only one whose views were not decidedly influenced by its own economic interests. One of the important points that would have to be examined in such a discussion would be how far the growth of this class has been artificially stimulated by the law of copyright (bold emphases added).
The law-review version contains at this pointâ€”though the reprint omitsâ€”the following rather striking footnote:
It would be interesting to discover how far a seriously critical view of the benefits to society of the law of copyright or the expression of doubts about the public interest in the existence of a class which makes its living from the writing of books would have a chance of being publicly stated in a society in which the channels of expression are so largely controlled by people who have a vested interest in the existing situation (bold emphasis added).
Hayek, often praised by his enemies for his consistency, was consistent here as well. Given his deep and abiding hatred of generalist intellectuals, who make their living by their pens and fix the general tenor of society’s ideas, Hayek mused about cutting the knot: abolishing intellectuals by abolishing the law that alone lets them support themselves. His whole purpose was to bring about what might seem theÂ reductio result: that the only writers would be professionalsâ€”mostly academicsâ€”who drew a salary to convey their expertise; people with independent incomes who wrote on the side; and writers as servants, employed by wealthy patrons and willing to toe their line. Hayek lamented that an honest policy debate on this was impossible because those pesky intellectuals, knowing their living was at stake, wouldn’t allow it.
Well, it turns out we didn’t need an honest policy debate in order to approach Hayek’s preferred outcome.
Digital distribution is quickly killing serious, i.e. decently-paid, journalism. (The digital contempt for mainstream journalism that I took aim at in my very first blog post, turned out to be a minor factor: the killer was Colonel Market, with a click, in the living room.) And as Steve Coll points out in the latest New York Review of Books, reviewing Brad Stone’s book on the subjectâ€”available for pre-order on Barnes & Noble, but not Amazonâ€”Jeff Bezos’ promotion of e-books and his use of Amazon’s market power to relentlessly squeeze their profits has already substantially and scarily “undermined the leverage of authors and publishers who depend on copyright protection to make a living.”
Libertarians typically value, or think they value, both free markets and a vigorous competition among independent ideas. But on this topic, which seems to reflect a conflict between the two (in the case of journalism) or a need to resort to government action as the only counterweight to monopsony power (in the case of Amazon), I’ve heard pretty much nothing from them. Here, as often, while I’d very much like to see liberals and libertarians form common Enlightenment cause, I can’t help worrying that Le Guin got it right in “Newton’s Sleep”â€”that too many libertarians, once you dig, aren’t bothered much at the prospect of social reaction. Do they really mind if intellectuals must dance to someone else’s tune, provided that the Right Sort of People are the ones paying the piper?