The Crime of Reason and the Closing of the Scientific Mind

December 18, 2008

This could have been a good book but sadly it isn't. Yet it only just fails in its purpose and Robert Laughlin, the author, should be encouraged to research his thesis more deeply, because he is an important man who has embraced an important idea but who has failed to address his idea with the respect it deserves. The important lesson of this book is that it is hard to cross disciplines, but the important lesson of Laughlin's next book may be that we need to repeal certain legislation.

Laughlin is a relatively young man (still under 60) who works as a professor of physics at Stanford University and who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1998 for his studies on the fractional quantum Hall effect. His important idea, however, is peripheral to physics: it is that intellectual property is a mistake. Although he doesn't take his idea to its logical conclusion and argue outright for the repeal of patents and copyrights, his book is the case for the prosecution against them.

Intellectual property laws emerged as a result of the lobbying of businessmen (the first patents were granted in Florence and Venice during the 15th century) and they have since been bolstered by lawyers. But businessmen and lawyers are not self-sacrificing philanthropists actuated solely by the common good, and patents are blatantly a conspiracy against the public: they affect to be rational mechanisms for encouraging the private funding of research but they are actually tools by which capitalists achieve legalised monopoly. Capitalists love monopoly: as Karl Marx observed, capitalists seek not to open markets but to close them.

The critical debate over patents has been best advanced by the economic historians. They have critiqued the claims of the lawyers, politicians and entrepreneurs. There is, in short, a considerable academic literature against IP, yet Laughlin has not referred to much of it, and his reading has not been systematic. Many of his references are to newspaper articles.

Laughlin has actually had a number of predecessors in his idea that intellectual property laws should be repealed, but I could not find (unless I missed them) references to books such as Eric Schiff's 1971 Industrialisation Without National Patents, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine's Against Intellectual Monopoly (available via the web) or indeed to the chapter "Let's abolish patents" in my own recent book.

What Laughlin has done is, actually, interesting. He has re-invented the wheel. By his own observations of scientific and commercial life, and by his own brainpower, he has created his own thesis - and it is a good thesis - but it is not nearly as good as that generated by the collected scholarly literature.

Yet Laughlin is right. Patents (except in the case of pharmaceutical drugs) should be abolished, and we need someone of his stature to say so. The accumulated vested interests of industrialists and IP lawyers will make this a difficult battle to win, but patents are like structured investments vehicles and collateralised debt obligations: the panjandrums will maintain that they are essential to economic growth but, actually, they damage economies and serve no function but to enrich the plutocrats at our expense.

There are some good insights in this book, such as this from page 42: "Commercial life is not about logic but about game playing and deception - the exact opposite of science." But a series of aphorisms do not a thesis make, and if Laughlin is going to help us abolish patents he will have to do more solid research.

The Crime of Reason and the Closing of the Scientific Mind

By Robert B. Laughlin
Basic Books
ISBN 9780465005079
Published 22 September 2008

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