Dealing With Things of Little Value: Occupy Wall Street and Copyrights

November 15, 2011

As the New York City police chase out and arrest protesters at the Occupy Wall Street site, they are also giving the world a lesson in how free market economics ain’t what it is cracked up to be. One of the side bars to this action is the disregard by the police for the personal property of the protesters, as they destroy or discard the sleeping bags, tents and various personal items of the protesters. (According to one account, this disregard applies to one of the protestor’s dogs. That is not funny.)  

Of course the treatment of the property is a trivial issue compared to the larger one of whether people’s right to protest is properly respected. However, it is worth comparing it to treatment of other property of little value.

What is the value of a copyrighted song that is downloaded without permission? It’s pretty damn trivial. Yet law enforcement officers can be made to take this value very seriously. What explains the contrast between the disregard for the protesters’ personal property and the government’s great concern for enforcing the copyrights of corporations like Disney and Time Warner?

One could suspect that it has something to do with the fact that the latter are large corporations who have the ability to force the government act in their interests. But, that is just a guess. Of course if economists ever paid attention to things like efficiency, they would be appalled by the fact that we rely on such an incredibly inefficient system to finance the production of creative work. But economists rarely seemed concerned about efficiency when the implications might be negative for people with money.

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