By “counter-productive”, I refer to laws which undermine, suppress or otherwise diminish the production and exchange of goods and services. Sometimes, such laws start off with good intentions. But when some powerful economic interests get disproportionate benefits from such laws, these get expanded, enhanced, or extended far beyond their originally-modest intentions. The “intellectual property” laws discussed in earlier blog entries as well as in several essays in the book Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property (Zone Books, 2010) are of this kind. Other counter-productive laws include those that restrict access by low-power community broadcast stations to the radio spectrum and laws that restrict the rights of farmers to commercially-distribute their seeds.
If the vested interests benefitting from them are powerful enough, these laws can become international in scope or get deeply entrenched in constitutional provisions, making it even more difficult to change them.
Developments such as Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Plus, the spread of plant variety protection, the introduction of software and life-form patents, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, and similar efforts indicate that such counter-productive laws continue to get expanded, enhanced and extended. The screws are getting tighter.
The book cited above includes my essay “Undermining Abundance: Counter-Productive Uses of Technology and Law in Nature, Agriculture and the Information Sector” (p.253), which explores further how law as well as technology can be used to undermine potential, incipient or actual abundance in goods and services.
Writing this essay has been life-changing for me. It led me to a deep study of artificial scarcity and the wellsprings of abundance. I saw how most of mainstream economics today sees only half the picture: it has made a very detailed study of scarcity, but has hardly touched on the concept of abundance. I found the subject so compelling that at age 56, after submitting the essay in 2008, I went to graduate school to study economics again. In school, I confirmed what I already knew from my readings: abundance seemed to have no place in mainstream economics, and scarcity remained a fundamental assumption.
Thus, the essay has grown into a thesis: that economics should be the study of scarcity and abundance.
Years from now, I hope, all schools of economics will teach the complete picture, that economies are shaped by the dynamics between scarcity and abundance and that economic development means moving from scarcity towards abundance for all.