Many movies have been made in praise of Robin Hood and his Merry Anglo-Saxon outlaws who raided the coffers of rich Norman barons and knights in order to dispense their loot to down-trodden fellow-Anglo-Saxons during the absence, leading Crusades, of King Richard I, when his evil brother, Prince John, ruled England with a heavy hand.
Now that period of history was one of absolute dictatorship and our instincts naturally – and most probably justly – lie on the side of the severely oppressed. After all, William the Conqueror’s Normans were foreign invaders, who had seized Anglo-Saxon wealth at the point of the sword (and arrow). Rough justice requires an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Aaron Swartz, who died by his own hand earlier this week, represents a very different kind of outlaw, even if much of the media is reporting his thefts in terms reminiscent of those episodes in Sherwood Forest. For Aaron Swartz was stealing from the rich to give to the poor within the environment of modern democracies operating under the rule of law.
In so doing, Swartz was eroding property rights. And property rights are the fulcrum of economic progress within the capitalist sector of any economy. Without clearly articulated and protected property rights, no modern economy can function. Contracts become impracticable, and a barter economy, in the absence of property rights, descends into a state of nature that we describe as a Hobbesian jungle.
In essence, if the Aaron Swartz’s of this world are allowed to prosper and multiply, they will take the advanced economies back into the Middle Ages of King Richard I and Prince John. I assure you that that is not a pleasant environment in which to fight for survival. It is not a world in which you would choose to live.
Aaron Swartz faced a lengthy jail sentence – as much as 30 years – for deploying computer hacking skills to download illegally millions of academic papers from an electronic library. Five years ago, Swartz had elected to become an outlaw by signing a guerrilla open access manifesto. He complained that the ‘world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage’ was in the process of ‘being digitalised and locked up’ by a handful of private corporations. He advised computer hackers to ‘take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world’.
Well, that is communism well beyond the vision of any Marx, Lenin or Stalin. When information that is costly to produce and process is distributed without charge to anyone who wishes to gain access, then assuredly such information will no longer be produced and processed. That is the nature of any market system.
Should governments then take over the role of markets in the production and dissemination of information, history tells us two things: (1) market-relevant new information will fail to appear; and (2) government-information will be produced and disseminated in a manner designed to destroy individual liberty and to promote tyranny.
So we should not judge Aaron Swartz as a Robin Hood attempting to ease the burdens of tyranny. Rather we should judge him as a promoter of communism, attempting to take down democracy and capitalism, and to replace them by absolutist government. For that crime, 30 years is a modest penalty. The gallows might be viewed as more appropriate.
In any event, Aaron Swartz delivered himself into judgment without any cost to society. And that decision ironically conforms with his personal philosophy. Aaron Swartz surely was not a hypocrite.
Hat Tip: John Gapper, ‘Aaron Swartz suffered from an illusion over research’, Financial Times, January 17, 2013