Cooking the Books 2: Free is good

Journalist, broadcaster and author Libby Purves chose the day that the London Evening Standard became a free, give-away paper to launch an attack on the whole idea of people having free access to things. Under the headline “If the future’s worth having, it won’t be free”, she laid into the “internet generation” which “has grown up believing it can enjoy other people’s hard work for nothing. This has got to stop” (Times, 12 October).

We socialists would say that, on the contrary, “if we’re going to have to pay for everything, the future is not worth having”. The resources exist today to produce enough food, clothes, housing, transport and health care so that no one on the planet needs to starve or be malnourished, or go without clean water, or live in slums, or not have access to the medicines and treatment they need. Society could go over to the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”, with everybody having access to what they need without having to pay in return for contributing what they can to the work of producing what is needed.

This, surely, is a better future than the continued application of the opposite principle of “can’t pay, can’t have” ? Which means that in some parts of the world people die from starvation or easily preventable disease, or exist in shanty towns on the outskirts of big cities. And that, all over the world, most people are deprived of something which would improve their lives and which could easily be provided. Where we can’t build adequate public infrastructures or install anti-pollution technologies because it would “cost too much”.

And what is wrong with the “internet generation” taking for granted that “music, films, news, photographs, cartoons and carefully researched or creative prose” should be available for free? Isn’t this a sign that the money-wages-profit system that is capitalism has outlived its usefulness and perhaps also a sign of the beginning of a consciousness that it needs to be replaced by a system in which people have free access to what they need?

Purves is defending her vested interest as a royalty-reaping author. That’s understandable as, under capitalism, people need money to live and that’s how she gets hers. It might be thought, though, that as a public intellectual she’d be more broad-minded than to judge an economic system by whether or not it ensures her her chosen source of income.

In pleading her cause she goes back to the labour theory of property first put forward by John Locke in the 17th century:

“Content is not cost free. Writing is work. Musicianship involves cost and labour, art is not innately free, nor the infrastructure of news reporting. Until food, clothes, housing and transport are doled out free, content-makers need to be paid”.

And, according to her, the way to ensure this is through “intellectual property rights”, even if these are difficult, not to say impossible, to enforce in some cases.

But she does at least concede that if “food, clothes, housing and transport” were free – which will be the case in socialism – so should watching films or listening to music or reading a book, on the internet. As these will be too in socialism. The future is free.

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