A recent Pew Research study surveys 44 countries, revealing that the Chinese are even friendlier to free markets than Americans. Katie Simmons, a senior researcher at Pew, “notes that China has enacted numerous reforms to open up the country’s economy since the 1970s.” It probably shouldn’t surprise us that people living under the Communist Party of China’s rule are naturally less inclined to blame the free market for economic ills than are westerners. After all, any move in the direction of economic freedom offers potentially huge rewards to a country like China.
For the west, on the other hand, blaming “the free market” is often quite convenient. No one really seems to know what the phrase means, making it susceptible to several contradictory usages and flexible enough to subsume a wide range of economic systems. For example, the Pew survey seems to take it for granted that a free market system is simply the same thing as a capitalist system and that we should unquestioningly treat these as synonymous. But that is not at all clear. Ignoring the differences may in fact create more confusion, breaking down meaningful conversations about political economy before they even get started.
Market anarchists follow a tradition of libertarian socialism inaugurated by radicals like Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker, for whom capitalism was something very different from a legitimate free market. Examining the economic system of their day, they concluded that it was one fundamentally defined by monopoly. While it was passing itself off as laissez faire and paying lip service to open competition, it was actually a system that privileged the owners of capital, outlawing the most important forms of competition.
So-called “intellectual property” is one such monopoly, an anticompetitive privilege masquerading as a legitimate individual right. This month, China established a court devoted solely to intellectual property issues, ostensibly signalling its commitment to global corporate capitalism. But again, corporate capitalism is no free market, and “intellectual property” is no legitimate property right.
Patents and copyrights grant their holders a special, artificial right that no one could legitimately have — the right to dictate how all others may use their own property in perfectly peaceful and noninvasive ways. In an economy like today’s technology-driven Information Age, proponents of IP law cannot even pretend that they offer well-founded and reasonable protections to inventors.
The actual beneficiaries of IP today are giant multinationals, rich companies with proprietary business models they jealously protect from the competition from below that they so fear — true inventors and innovators. Corporate powerhouses devour patents and copyrights precisely because they forcibly prevent and impede innovation and progress. “Intellectual property” work sdirectly at odds with the rationale most often given in its defense — that it incentivizes new inventions.
The largest multinational companies sit on thousands of patents, holding the ideas they protect out of use, trolling to prevent others from using them and cutting in on their margins. IP does nothing so well as it protects corporate monopoly. To call such a monopoly system a “free market” is a bad joke.
Monopolists love the language of free enterprise, innovation, and competition. And why shouldn’t they? It sanctifies and legitimates their unearned and unjustified wealth and position within society. But the rest of us don’t have to accept their deceptive narrative, their claim to represent individual rights and freedom. Likewise, we needn’t accept coercive privileges like “intellectual property” as the embodiment of those principles.