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Guns, smoke, global warming and Microsoft

June 19th, 2004

If you’ve spent any time around the blogosphere, or looking at thinktank websites, you’ll be aware that the following opinions tend to go together:

* widespread ownership of guns saves lives

* tobacco smoke is harmless (if not to smokers then to anyone who breathes it second-hand)

* global warming is a myth

There’s not too much mystery about this. The kinds of characteristics that would encourage the adoption of any one of these beliefs (make your own list) obviously encourage the others. What’s surprising to me is how frequently, at least among thinktanks these opinions are correlated with support for Microsoft, and, more particularly, denunciation of open-source software.

This thought struck me in relation to the much-denounced study of Linux being peddled by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute. As Tim Lambert shows with chapter and verse, “ADTI are anti-Linux, pro-tobacco and anti-global warming shills.” ADTi doesn’t appear to have weighed in on gun laws (yet), but Flack Central Station hits the quadrella, as you would expect. In Australia, our own offshoot, the Institute of Public Affairs manages a similar feat, toeing the party line on tobacco, guns and global warming and also being a strong supporter of unfettered monopoly rights for owners of “intellectual property”.

The question that puzzles me is, why does Microsoft find itself in this kind of company? Of course, all the groups I’ve mentioned are pro-corporate, but plenty of other corporations manage to advance their interests without descending to this level. And, while I don’t like either Microsoft’s products or its attitude to intellectual property, I’m obviously in the minority on the first point at least. Again, while I don’t warm to Bill Gates at a personal level, he’s certainly shown more interest in putting his wealth to good use than the average billionaire. I find it hard to believe that he really wants to subsidise the general activities of groups like those I’ve mentioned.

On the whole, I incline to the view that Microsoft, as a corporation, has got beyond the point where even its founder can control it. But I’d be interested to hear other theories.

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  1. Hristos
    June 19th, 2004 at 23:38 | #1

    John, does this mean that you dont subscribe to the Schumpeterian view of dynamic competition?

    P.S. global warming is a myth. Andrew Bolt says so. The Herald-Sun never lies!

  2. Tony Healy
    June 20th, 2004 at 00:23 | #2

    John, are you aware that prominent open source advocate Eric Raymond is a strong gun advocate? He has written: “Many well-intentioned Americans have been propagandized into believing a collection of myths that paint guns as intrinsically evil and demonize gun owners.” He also quotes Tim Lambert’s Lott.

    http://steve-parker.org/notes/esr/guns/

    I mention this not to condemn Raymond, but simply to point out there is considerable diversity of opinion around these issues. Also, you might be interested in this Forbes article that points out IBM’s hypocrisy in pushing the virtues of open source in markets it doesn’t control, but fiercely guarding its own proprietary software such as Websphere and AIX in markets it does control.

    http://forbes.com/enterprisetech/2004/06/15/cz_dl_0615ibmlinux.html

  3. John Quiggin
    June 20th, 2004 at 09:05 | #3

    I think the Raymond example reinforces my point. It ought to be possible for Microsoft an anti-Raymond (ie reasonable on guns, GW etc and critical of open-source). Why don’t they get people like this to push their viewpoint rather than the likes of ADTi.

  4. Tony Healy
    June 20th, 2004 at 10:02 | #4

    There are whole squadrons of decent, intelligent people who oppose open-source activism. Many of them are too scared of open source fanatics to say anything, especially if they represent a public business. Witness the pilloring of SCO.

    Also, it’s not fair to say that Microsoft got AdTI to “push their viewpoint.” I know the conspiracy wankers say this happened behind the scenes, but I would be doubtful of this actually.

    There are actually lots of people who think intellectual property is a reasonable reasonable part of a healthy economy. Open source is often driven by the same type of people who think workers should get paid less. Raymond and Lessig are in fact both supporters of offshoring, as well as open source.

  5. June 20th, 2004 at 12:36 | #5

    Tony, perhaps you can share your experiences on this matter? Have you received any money from Microsoft, either directly or indirectly via IPI?

  6. June 20th, 2004 at 13:27 | #6
  7. June 20th, 2004 at 14:24 | #7

    I’ve noticed the following positions tend to go together:

    - Opposition to private ownership of guns.
    - Support of the Kyoto Protocol.
    - Supporting a ban on Tobacco smoking in privately owned businesses
    - Fanatical hatred of Microsoft, or any large corporation for that matter.

    So come on, lefties, Who’s paying you?

  8. June 20th, 2004 at 14:42 | #8

    … and support of Saddam!

  9. Tony Healy
    June 20th, 2004 at 15:16 | #9

    Hi Tim. I’m reasonably well known as someone who speaks my mind on issues I consider important. The accusation that I’m a Microsoft spokesman has already been made, last year, when I dared to oppose open source. (Check the Link list, around July or August.)

    I’m reluctant to answer your question directly, because it’s so arrogant. Could you go off and do some checking, and then see whether you still pose that question?

    The IPI paper is not a secret. The local open sourcers know all about it, hence the Age attack and response. You can also see a piece on Online Opinion.

  10. Tony Healy
    June 20th, 2004 at 15:23 | #10

    Tim, in future, please stick to the arguments and do not accuse me of ulterior motives.

  11. June 20th, 2004 at 15:39 | #11

    On the gun control issue, I don’t think anyone is so naive as to claim gun ownership saves more lives than not; rather the point at issue is which lives get saved.

    In my own experience, special circumstances can and do arise in which private gun ownership is a great help to those who have them. In 1960 our family was part of the white population of Luluabourg when the Force Publique mutinied. We holed up in a defensible block of flats for three days until a Belgian paratroop commander disobeyed orders and dropped his forces in to rescue us – we literally had no legal defence, and were saved in breach of the law.

    Anyhow, the point is that the white population survived for three days using its own resources (and the good fortune that the mutineers didn’t think of breaking into the armoury and getting the mortars). Our family was the only British family, and the only white residents witout guns of our own; my father had to borrow a pistol (which he showed us) to man his part of the defences. The kind of weapons the Belgians had included sub-machine guns and the mutineers had regular FN rifles; I distinctly recall seeing a Belgian with a Sten gun slung from his shoulder as we filed in to the block of flats.

    Granted, that is an extreme case, but it does bring out the salient aspects of the gun control issue: when there is a breakdowm, on whom shall private individuals rely? That is a question with many deep ramifications in civil, criminal and constitutional areas. There is no blanket answer, and it is as wrong to apply a general anti-gun position to it based on today’s Australian circumstances, as it is to extend the late 18th century American situation to other parts of the world today. It’s just too general. But clearly even today in certain circumstances people can need the sort of grenade launchers the Iraqis are using against their own occupiers right now; we would need them if we faced occupiers (unlikely) or incursions (extremely plausible, within our lifetimes). It always can happen here, wherever here is; we are only ever two turns of the road away from that sort of breakdown.

    (Oh, by the way, when I personally observed the Melbourne pro- and anti-gun control rallies, I noticed that there was far more anti- support than pro- support, which was consistently misrepresented by all sections of the media.)

  12. June 20th, 2004 at 16:38 | #12

    Gee,those gun nuts are a worry.If gun ownership is such a great idea,then lets campaign for EVERYONE to have a gun-now that would be a level playing field.
    But at what age should kids be allowed to have guns?
    Well since guns are such a good idea,I think the first day of school would be the time to arm the kiddies.

  13. June 20th, 2004 at 16:43 | #13

    Tony, I did not accuse you of anything. I asked you a question. Which you didn’t answer. Have you received any money from Microsoft, either directly or indirectly via IPI?

  14. June 20th, 2004 at 16:54 | #14

    Yobbo, those think tanks are, in fact, getting paid by Microsoft, Philip Morris and Exxon. The odd one out is guns. That really is a grass roots movement and not astroturf like the other three.

    Incidently, I’m not opposed to private ownership of guns, but John Howard is.

  15. matt byrne
    June 20th, 2004 at 18:23 | #15

    For the ultimate open source forum go no further than: http://www.slashdot.org

  16. June 20th, 2004 at 21:54 | #16

    To be honest Tim (and John), I don’t know why you get so worked up about thinktanks being funded. It’s not as if people wouldn’t come to those points of view without the existence of thinktanks.

    Microsoft, the tobacco industry, McDonalds and everyone else have never given me any money, but that doesn’t stop me from holding the views I have.

    Nobody cares who funds the thinktanks except you, Tim. That was the point of my post. You are the only person who thinks it’s important. Everyone else simply responds to their arguments rather than trying to see the evil conspiracy behind the scenes.

    In football parlance, we call it “playing the man” when you should be “playing the ball”.

  17. June 20th, 2004 at 21:59 | #17

    Also, I should add that I don’t see any problem with corporations funding think tanks that are sympathetic to their point of view. After all, there’s a massive source of funding to their opponents from the taxpayer purse, and if these thinktanks weren’t around, then their opponents would have the solitary voice in the debate.

  18. Homer Paxton
    June 20th, 2004 at 22:11 | #18

    I really don’t care who funds what research what I care about is the quality of the research.

  19. June 21st, 2004 at 01:10 | #19

    IBM is trying to max its profits. Therefore it will sell AIX ahead of Linux. This is not hypocrisy. This is sound business sense. IBM may be using open source in some markets to weaken Microsoft and to gain business in areas where it has no competitve offering. Again sound business sense if that is the strategy. It may also be trying to rein in open source and bring that model into being a paying propostiion down the track. Much of IBMs bunsiness is services and hardware. For those parts of the business, it is irrelevant whether IBM sells the software as well.

    Widespread adoption of open source is a long way off, yet inevitable. The indefinite reliance on Microsoft to power the planet’s desktops into the future is a fantasy. Many computing functions will become necessary social utilities and it will be unsustainable for a corporate group to tax their use through the provisions of IP law.

    Microsoft also will simply be unable to cope with the necessary developments that will be required in the coming years. Open source will feed the businesses of computing who will package, distribute, support and maintain for a fee. There will be vast, if more evenly spread, profits and legion well paid workers in the industry, but it will be as a result of the wider adoption of open source. Open source frees up the channels of innovation by making everybody a potential developer of base software.

    Until we get there tho, the flacks of the big companies will spend a lot of money in the media and in the courts delaying the day. Sound business sense.

  20. June 21st, 2004 at 04:09 | #20

    wbb: People don’t rely on Microsoft to power their desktops, they rely on Microsoft to develop applications like Word, Excel, Internet Explorer et al. Open Source developers have to start developing applications if they want to beat Microsoft. 10 years of MS-Dos dominating Apple showed us that. Not to mention Amiga and Atari.

  21. Don Wigan
    June 21st, 2004 at 11:39 | #21

    Here’s my two bob’s worth after accidentally running in the wrong topic post.

    Microsoft has got a collosal cheek patenting the mouse double click. It is not as if they invented either the mouse or GUI.

  22. June 21st, 2004 at 11:54 | #22

    John, john, john… you’re style is getting a bit more rude. I believe that there has been insufficient evidence to show that Kyoto, gun control or smoking rules on private property increase total happiness. That does not mean that guns never kill, that humans cannot influence their environment or that smoking is never bad for you. It certainly doesn’t make me crazy. I’m surprised you didn’t add creationism in there to complete you tirade.

    Your style invites a list of leftie beliefs, stated in a biased way and grouped together to make all lefties look stupid. I won’t pursue that because it would be a distraction (and by immitating you I’d undermine my opposition to your style).

    Copyright law is simply an alternative way to enforce contracts (and so I support it). I oppose all patent laws as unnecessary government provided monopolies. This is because I believe a free and open market has enough incentives towards innovation – through the dynamic competitive process. The same process makes anti-trust legislation also unnecessary in my view.

  23. Jason Soon
    June 21st, 2004 at 12:44 | #23

    Re Microsft. It can be buggy and annoying but the simple fact is I’m not an IT geek and I’m not interested in spending hours installing my own software or customising it or reading instruction books. I am happy to have Microsoft software preinstalled in the computer and I can’t give a flying rat’s ass that it’s not technically first rate according to an engineer’s standards. As a consumer I have better things to do with my time. once the open source people understand this maybe they can start going places.

  24. June 21st, 2004 at 12:46 | #24

    Dear John Humphreys, copyright law is not an alternative way to enforce contracts. Contracts do not bind third parties. Copyrights are another government provided monopoly.

  25. Mork
    June 21st, 2004 at 13:11 | #25

    I think I can see John Humphrey’s point. In the absence of copyright law, if I were to sell you a book, as part of the contract of sale, I’d demand that you agree not to copy it and sell the copies, and also that you extract the same promise from anyone you sell the original copy to. Copyright law covers both situations.

  26. Tony Healy
    June 21st, 2004 at 13:24 | #26

    Tim, no I did not receive any money from Microsoft, either directly or through IPI. More’s the pity.

    On that subject, though, does UNSW and your department receive money, equipment or resources from IBM for Linux development? I understand it does.

  27. John Quiggin
    June 21st, 2004 at 13:36 | #27

    I’ve amended the post slightly to make it clear that the correlation I refer to is found among thinktanks rather than bloggers. Similarly with my references to “shills”, disreputable company and so on.

  28. Jason Soon
    June 21st, 2004 at 13:41 | #28

    copyrights and patents are monopolies only in the sense that all property rights are ‘monopolies’. this renders economically meaningless the term ‘monopoly’. property rights are an institution for internalising externalities (allowing people to capture the benefits and bear the costs of their actions on other parties) in partt by facilitating a net reduction in transaction costs and should be evaluated on a level playing field on this basis rather than predetermining the question. almost any legal device can ex-post-facto be rationalised as a means of reducing transaction costs and so recognition of the transaction-cost reducing nature of copyright alone does not imply unqualified support – this is merely a heuristic for making a judgement call on how legal institutions can be reformed.

  29. Tony Healy
    June 21st, 2004 at 13:55 | #29

    John, on that subject, surely you would find that most PR firms, advertising agencies, law firms and accounting firms have been involved promoting all sorts of disgusting crap, including tobacco, and being involved in all sorts of dodgy behaviour. Witness the current revelations about Hardie trying to avoid its asbestos responsibilities, and let’s not forget HIH.

    Tim, perhaps you could look into the hidden funding of the open source movement?

  30. John Quiggin
    June 21st, 2004 at 13:57 | #30

    “copyrights and patents are monopolies only in the sense that all property rights are ‘monopolies’”

    This is incorrect both historically and economically. Historically, letters patent were the Tudor instrument for granting monopolies in such things as playing cards and salt, and were later extended to reward inventors.

    Economically, if I make a car, there’s an obvious and economically relevant difference between the right have to the car and and right I might have to stop someone else making a similar car. One is a property right in the usual sense of the term and the other is a monopoly. Since the car itself is a rival good while the right to make cars is not, only the former is, in general, likely to be optimally dealt with through property rights.

  31. Tony Healy
    June 21st, 2004 at 13:58 | #31

    Tim, the description of copyright as a monopoly is itself part of an agenda associated with the anti-copyright movement. See Gans(2002). Many economists describe copyright as an essential enabler for competition. (Ergas and others.)

  32. Jason Soon
    June 21st, 2004 at 14:08 | #32

    John
    Though copyright and patents involve production of non-rival goods the distinction between these and more conventional property rights is blurred by similar underlying objectives. Indeed because the goods and services covered by IP are non-rivalrous and non-excludable this is what gives rise to the problem of internalising externalities in the same way that the relative problems of organising production via commons vs via divisible property rights gave rise to the utility of the latter instrument. Property rights are devices for coordinating production and transaction while the distinction between patents and copyrights is in practice a matter of semantics – while a patent is a property right in an idea, so essentially is a copyright if we define an ‘expression’ as a particular idea for organising text. I see no advantage from making such distinctions as opposed to dealing with the underlying economics

  33. John Quiggin
    June 21st, 2004 at 14:21 | #33

    jason, I agree there’s no fundamental distinction between patents and copyrights.

    But there is a big and useful distinction between monopoly rights such as patents and copyrights and property rights in the usual sense.

    You’re quite right to say that the reason patent rights are given is to internalise externalities and that’s a reason more generally why monopoly may be socially beneficial (economies of scale are a particular kind of externality).

    One problem with much of the discussion is a tendency to treat “monopoly” as a “boo word” that must not be attached to anything you support. I’m happy to allow some monopoly rights to inventors, though I think they have already gone too far in the direction of “unfettered monopoly rights for owners of “intellectual property”".

  34. June 21st, 2004 at 14:32 | #34

    You could be an intellectual property rights anarchist and still have sympathy for Microsoft as a victim of attempted rent-seeking by its competitors and the abuse of competition policy by politicians and bureaucrats. Classical liberal think-tanks like Cato are probably split on IP issues, but are opposed to much competition policy on the grounds that it is ultimately anti-competitive.

  35. June 21st, 2004 at 16:51 | #35

    Mork, the problem with your contract example is that the contract does not bind third parties. Even if the contract between A and B says that B agrees not to copy it and to extract the same promise from someone B sells it to, B can break the contract and sell it to C without getting them to make such a promise. C can then make as many copies as he wants and there is nothing A can do to stop C. All he can do is sue B for breach of contract.

  36. June 21st, 2004 at 17:22 | #36

    Tony, I’m not aware of any IBM support for Linux development here at UNSW. Perhaps you are thinking of the Gelato project which gets support from HP?

    If there is some hidden funding to open source you might want to tell us about it. As far as I can tell companies like IBM funding Open Source have done it openly since it is good PR. Nor is it hypocritical for IBM to push the virtues of Open Source while also selling propriety software. I don’t recall IBM ever saying that all software should be Open Source.

    As for ADTI, are you going to tell us that their claim that Torvalds copied Linux from Minix has even the slightest scrapof merit?

  37. Mork
    June 21st, 2004 at 17:46 | #37

    Tim, you’re perfectly correct … but I’m not sure how what you say undercuts the illustration.

    From A’s point of view, it doesn’t matter who has to pay the damages, as long as they can collect from someone (the point of the exercise, after all, is to put A in the position that they would have been in if the copies had been legitimately purchased).

    So, if A can sue B for the damage caused by C, A is happy, and B has a strong incentive to prevent C from making copies.

    The only “freedom” that’s lost by using copyright as the mechanism is the freedom that C would have if B were to have acted in breach of its obligation and sold without extracting the promise that it was required to by its agreement with A.

    So, I do think it’s a useful way of analyzing the interests involved, and why the state might have an interest in getting involved … I guess in economic terms, the costs of creating and enforcing the contractual rights would be an externality that copyright laws remove.

  38. June 21st, 2004 at 18:40 | #38

    Clearly you don’t read much Slashdot, John. Using GNU/Linux and carrying a piece are the two essential ingredients of any rugged individualist like, for example, open source evangelist Eric S. Raymond.

  39. June 21st, 2004 at 18:49 | #39

    But then B is not going to buy any books. Buy a book and lose it on the train or get it stolen and you have to pay millions in damages.

  40. Mork
    June 21st, 2004 at 19:14 | #40

    B would not buy a book if that were the contract. But they would if the contract only required them to extract the promise in the event of a voluntary transfer.

    Therefore A would offer the books on the latter terms, because they won’t sell any books otherwise.

    But you do highlight a way in which copyright does provide A with some additional protection.

  41. wbb
    June 21st, 2004 at 22:02 | #41

    Yobbo – if I am not relying on Microsoft to power this desktop – then why did I theoretically pay them ~ $200 for XP?

  42. June 22nd, 2004 at 03:51 | #42

    I dont know, wbb, why did you?

    Why would you run XP if you didn’t need access to applications that run on it? After all, Linux is free…

  43. June 22nd, 2004 at 12:30 | #43

    Thanks Mork. Without copyright laws you’d have to put on the front of each book “by opening and reading this book you agree to be bound by the a contract that doesn’t allow you to reproduce the book without the authors consent”… or something similar. There would be plenty of other variations that would work. Copyright laws are then just an attempt to make this system work more effectively.

    Copyright and Patents are very different creatures. A copyright is restriction over the use of a physical asset (book) – and can be covered by general property rights and contracts. A patent is about an idea, without a physical representation.

    And Patents and private property rights are very different things. This is because a patent effectively changes the system of property rights away from a system that is based in the world of physical assets (as it has historically been).

    A system of physical property rights (as I support and which is the basis of most capitalist thought) would mean that I own my body and my mind, I own my neurons, I own whatever thoughts float around in my head. If I acquire my knowledge without violating any body else’s physical assets – then I own what I know. In such a world, it doesn’t matter who thought of an idea first.

    Patents are an abstract right, much like the “positive” rights to education or the positive right to hit somebody. Such rights must always come at the expense of the owner of the physical property. In the example of patents, the owner of the idea is effectively given ownership of some of my neurons (without my consent).

    It is very true to say that patents are designed to remove an externality (knowledge spillovers) – but this is not relevant to the discussion at hand (which is about whether patents and property rights are the same thing). The (maybe more interesting) debate about whether patents should be introduced as a government measure to correct for an externality is a different issue. In my opinion, patents are not necessary because:

    1) there is private protection of ideas which grants some monopoly rents to innovators
    2) innovation has a natural pay-off in that people like to do it (as a hobby, for the fame)
    3) the competitive process means that investment in R&D is a form of insurance against others investing in R&D and innovation is often necessary simply to retain market share
    4) there are costs associated with granting short term monopoly rents which could be significant – not just because of higher prices but also changed behaviour

    But that’s an open debate that I’m not trying to win here. I’m just saying that patents, copyrights and general property rights are all different things.

  44. June 24th, 2004 at 12:33 | #44

    Tim Lambert has posted a lengthy article on this subject:

    http://cgi.cse.unsw.edu.au/~lambert/cgi-bin/blog/2004/06#tanks

  45. Tony Healy
    August 3rd, 2004 at 20:04 | #45

    Lambert’s “lengthy article” bears out my claim about conspiracy wankers. I explicitly told him Microsoft has nothing to do with my work or my IPI paper, yet he goes and states that it does. Or he quibbles. He would say that he uses the word “seems.”

    His article is dishonest and shoddy and is an example of the type of behaviour he purports to be exposing.

  46. August 3rd, 2004 at 22:50 | #46

    Mr Healy, you don’t seem to have read what I wrote too carefully. I wrote that all the think tanks that have published the criticisms seem to be funded by Microsoft. I didn’t say that they had paid you to write your article.

    As for IPI, they refuse to say if they get money from Microsoft.

  47. Tony Healy
    August 4th, 2004 at 12:42 | #47

    Tim, what you wrote in respect of me and IPI was fiction. You invented it. I notice none of the professional media touched it. While think tanks are a problem, so are amateur bloggers with no respect for truth and accuracy.

  48. John Quiggin
    August 4th, 2004 at 13:13 | #48

    I don’t want to stifle debate on the issues, but I’d prefer that arguments about the accuracy of posts on other blogs not be conducted here.

  49. Tony Healy
    August 4th, 2004 at 14:00 | #49

    John, the only reason I refer to it is that someone above posted a link here to Lambert’s article. I take your point though and will follow this up through other avenues.

  50. August 4th, 2004 at 15:07 | #50

    Tony, what I wrote about you and IPI is not fiction. If you want to dispute the accuracy of any statement I made, then quote what I said and explain why you think that my statement is inaccurate.

  51. Tony Healy
    August 5th, 2004 at 09:54 | #51

    Tim, explain to me how this conspiracy works. Did Microsoft tell me what to write? Did they vet my article? Did IPI tell me what to write? How does it work?

  52. August 5th, 2004 at 14:03 | #52

    Microsoft gives the think tanks money. The think tanks publish reports favourable to Microsoft. They either get there in-house people to write them or find outsiders who have the opinions that they want to promote and publish them.

    Do you really think that IPI would have published your article if it was in favour of Open Source?

    Did you contact them in the first place or did they contact you?

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