The Economics Of Abundance Is Not A Moral Issue

from the continuing-the-series dept

As regular readers know, I've been working on a series of posts discussing the concept of economics when there's a lack of scarcity. My last post on the importance of understanding "zero" in economics (and the fact that many of the problems people have in grasping the subject being due to a misunderstanding of zero) kicked off a really interesting discussion, that has me diverging from my planned third post in the series. Instead, I'd like to focus on one of the key objections people keep coming up with: the idea that this whole concept of the economics of abundance makes no sense because it means the creators of content make no money and they have a right to make money for their creative output.

It makes for a compelling emotional argument, but it is wrong on two major points. First, is the idea that it means creators of content can't make any money. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. What this series is leading up to is an explanation of how the opportunity for making money is even larger when you understand the economics, and don't rely on directly selling the non-scarce good. However, for now we'll leave that aside and focus on the second point: that there's a right to make money. That's completely false. Economics is not a moral issue. It doesn't care about anyone's "right" to make money from their creative output... and neither should you. The idea that anyone automatically has a right to make money from their creative output is wrong. Everyone has the right to try to make money out of their creative output, but if the market isn't there, then there's no money to be made.

For example, I could draw a picture on a scrap of paper and try to sell it as fine art -- but no one would buy it, because my artistic drawing ability is pretty weak. That is, the market would properly value my drawing at something close to zero because there would be no demand for it. It has nothing to do with my right to make money. Similarly, in a situation where there's a lack of scarcity, the market would properly value something at close to (or equal to) zero because there's infinite supply. It has nothing to do with the moral issue of the creators right to profit from the creative output, and everything to do with the market at hand.

Perhaps part of where this gets confusing is that we have the current situation to fall back on: where content creators have had a good run selling their content. People have trouble then understanding why we would suggest that they should learn how to take the same content they've been selling for money and give it away free. The issue here is that the comparison is wrong. It's not about a choice between being able to sell the content for money or giving it away for free, but a recognition of where the market is going. Historically, the content has been made scarce by connecting it to a specific media (music on CDs, video on tape/DVD, etc.). What the internet is doing is breaking down the barrier of that scarcity, and that's changing the market, pushing out the supply to infinite levels and putting clear pricing pressure on the content. People used to make a living selling buggy whips too, but the market changed, and they couldn't any more.

In other words, it's wrong to look at this as a "choice" between the old way and the new way, but to look at the market trends and recognize that the old way (pretending the content is scarce) won't be viable any more -- and when that happens, those who try to sell their abundant good based on scarcity will find that there is no market and no matter what "right" they have to try to make money, the market won't care. Once you realize that, you can make the argument that content creators should wait until that market shift is complete to make the change, but as we go forward, I'll hopefully make a convincing argument that it actually makes much more sense (and much more money) to begin shifting now, before being forced to shift. But, for that, we'll have to wait a little longer...

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  1. icon
    Mike (profile), 15 Nov 2006 @ 3:42pm

    Re: Mikes A Commie Thief

    The Internet is constructing an unspeakable supply and breaking down all demand. The end of capitalism... sounds communist to me...

    This is the argument that makes the least sense to me, because my argument is very much based on free market capitalism. I also never said that it's "breaking down all demand." In fact, I believe the opposite. It's increasing demand, but that's for a later post.

    It's not at all about the end of capitalism. In fact, quite the opposite. It's about getting rid of artificial barriers to commerce, to let free market capitalism work.

    Content creators should be paid for content they sell.

    Yes. If they can sell it. But they should not just be paid for the content they *make*.

    If they cannot sell their worthless music then they should not make money.

    Indeed. No disagreement from me.

    However, I feel confident in consumers to make that decision rather that a THIEF like you!!! our trying to build an argument to justify something that is immoral. I will admit right here and now I download content and I will continue to thieve content anywhere I can get it.

    This is also amusing. I do not download music or movies. I buy CDs or DVDs. I do not use any file sharing programs. I have never had Kazaa or Grokster or any such program installed on my computer. I believe that under current laws, using those products has a high chance of being considered illegal and I will not break the law.

    This has nothing to do with me justifying any behavior -- especially since I don't do what you accuse me of. It's about understanding the economics that are impacting the market, and learning how to profit from it. That seems a particularly capitalistic point of view, so I'm curious why you disagree.

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