Counter-Productive Laws

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.

You may also like...

5 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    The notion of abundance isn’t necessarily as benign as you portray. Both capitalism and Marxism are productivist ideologies, and we can see how well those have worked out. You’re right that IPR and some other laws you mention creates artificial scarcities that are often unjustifiable and harmful. But I don’t think swinging to the opposite extreme is necessarily the right way to go. E.g., streams of abundant information are not necessarily beneficial if they make decisions more difficult, if they harm peoples’ privacy, if they induce people to adopt harmful technologies, etc. (The distinction between “information” and “knowledge” is a very fugitive thing in this symposium generally, BTW.)

    To advocate “abundance” categorically without interrogating why the abundance of a particular thing is beneficial seems like a bad idea. That interrogation must become part of the “complete picture” you speak of. For a very prescient critique in this vein, see Pierre Kende, « L’abondance est-elle possible ? » (1971).

  2. Frank Pasquale says:

    AJ, that last work reminds me of david riesman’s book abundance for what?

    or, more lyrically, the folks in the movie Wall*E.

  3. Roberto Verzola says:

    I acknowledge the subtler issues you raise, which the available time and space did not allow me to touch on. I should have also added that efforts towards abundance should start with necessities like food, shelter, health services and education.

    Indeed, abundance in some goods could bring its own problems, including the moral hazard problem. However, these problems are not necessarily as bad as problems associated with scarcity.

    Though I’m definitely not wealthy, I am two or three steps above the poor in our country. It is easy for me — and more so for the wealthy who enjoy abundance today — to tell the poor that wealth has its disadvantages, or even to live in temporary poverty to prove the point. But I will always have my middle-class income to fall back on. For the wealthy who live in abundance, voluntary simplicity can be a choice.

    But those who live in involuntary poverty — misery even — have no similar option. I was thinking about them when I wrote about development as a move from scarcity towards abundance.

    Greetings from the Philippines,

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Voluntary simplicity doesn’t need to enter into this. Look at the extremes of acquisitiveness and callousness (adulterating baby formula, etc.) that are evident in parts of Chinese society today: most of those folks were quite poor less than a generation ago. Improving the lot of those who now live in poverty is an appropriate goal for economists to help bring about — no one (in this thread, at least) disagrees with you there. But even in a poorer country, one needs to be more nuanced than saying that abundance is categorically good. Re-defining economics to include abundance won’t help it much, as long as it remains divorced from (or, more accurately: as long as it pretends to be divorced from) a larger social, political, and ethical context.

  5. Roberto Verzola says:

    Thanks for the additional comments.

    It is, of course, always safer to avoid words like “categorically” which leave no room for exceptions. But I would say that abundance of goods and services (not bads) — especially the necessities of life — is generally not only good but better than, and would be much preferred over, scarcity. That said, I acknowledge your point about further nuancing.

    It will be hard to discuss abundance and artificial scarcity divorced from a larger social, political and ethical context. My essay in the Access to Knowledge book took these contexts into account, with lots of examples.

    I wrote that artificial scarcities are often created by corporations. With the help of governments, they institutionalize corporate control over scarcity and abundance, to increase profit margins. I further wrote that the largest corporations have become so powerful, having acquired “legal personality” and accumulated vast political, economic and cultural powers that if they were counted as a distinct species, they and not Homo sapiens would now be the dominant species on this planet.

    I also wrote that managing abundance should involve the following goals: 1) make the source of abundance accessible to a greater number, ideally to all (social justice); 2) make sure the source lasts for generations, preferably indefinitely (sustainability); 3) learning to build cascades of abundance; 4) develop an ethic that nurtures abundance; and 5) attain dynamic balance (I identified four major sources of imbalance — our non-renewable energy base, the linear/non-cyclical processes of the industrial sector, unchecked population growth, and the unlimited corporate drive for profit).

    It was nice of the publisher, Zone Books, that they agreed, consistent with the message of the book, to put its full text as well as the individual essays online, for free downloading. The full text of my essay is available here: