Gifford Cites Historical Precedents Countering Commons Model
WASHINGTON D.C. - The expansion of human creativity, wealth and liberty made possible by the digital revolution will best be accomplished in a world respectful of property rights, writes The Progress & Freedom Foundation President Ray Gifford. In the Progress on Point "The Place for Property and Commons," Gifford cites the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and in particular the "enclosure movement" in England in the 18th century, to demonstrate that progress and societal well-being can result from a greater emphasis on property rights and the return those rights give to producers.
The theme of 2005's PFF Aspen Summit was "Building a Digital Ownership Society: The Place for Property and Commons." Gifford opened that Summit 's first full day with a speech on which this Progress on Point is based. The theme, explains Gifford, "frames the overall context of a Summit that extends to topics as disparate as communications regulation, copyright and patent law, media policy, spectrum policy, the structure of innovation, the nature of capital markets and standard-setting."
The digital revolution, writes Gifford, is leading to massive increases in wealth and productivity, as well as changes to the social and political structures of our age, just as the agricultural and industrial revolutions did in their time. But those in the commons movement are mistaken in arguing that the digital revolution threatens to foreclose knowledge or innovation. When English common land was enclosed for more efficient private farming, this shift to a property rights model created a manifold increase in food production, as well as a new labor force that fueled the industrial revolution.
"In drawing these historical analogies, my claim, quite simply, is that we can have no a priori preference for property or commons," Gifford writes. "We can, of course, have experiences and draw from them. That experience, in my mind, shows that societies organized under norms of property tend to be more prosperous and enjoy more liberty than regimes where ownership is in common or at the will of the state." This is central when regulators and legislators weigh public policy, he argues. "The digital revolution does present great opportunity - and potential peril - but the fundamental questions of how society, law and culture should respond to this technological innovation are the same."
"Property and contract law, copyright and patent doctrine, laws of general use and applicability are supple and varied enough to deal with new factual situations posed by the digital revolution," Gifford says. "To be sure, these laws are imperfect and subject to rentseeking, but copyright doctrine will not allow 'ideas,' property understood, to be privatized; patent law will not let obvious next-step innovations to be patented; media in an Internet age cannot be controlled and concentrated, but is rather blossoming and multiplying; and consumers in the marketplace will not allow network owners to 'close' the Internet."
The Progress & Freedom Foundation is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy. It is a 501(c)(3) research & educational organization.