“That’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here…” Benjamin Franklin edition
I’m working on another volume in my Pequod-like pursuit of Megan McArdle* (see, after what went on here earlier today, I’ve got a Melville mindworm going), but just to show that I’m not dead yet, I thought I’d toss in a little lagniappe to a discussion begun here in John’s post of a day or so ago.
There, I learned that some idiot I’ve never before had the dystopic experience of encountering had this to say about the notion of an intellectual commons:
But Barton says that the Bible, Ben Franklin and the Pilgrims all opposed Net Neutrality because it violates the rights of huge corporations to charge higher rates and discriminate on content, calling it a “wicked” policyand “socialism on the Internet.”
Here’s David Barton’s own words on the subject, just to show that the snark version is, in fact, deadly accurate:
But we talk about it today because it is a principle of free market. That’s a Biblical principle, that’s a historical principle, we have all these quotes from Ben Franklin, and Jefferson and Washington and others on free market and how important that is to maintain.
Well, as it happens, I’m reading a really excellent book: Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, which is, among much else, a detailed and beautifully written archaeology of what the founders — and Franklin primus inter pares — thought about ideas, ownership, and the commons.
One thing Hyde reminds us of is that Franklin himself did not claim ownership of ideas that he himself saw as the product of many, the inheritance of all, and the property of none. He did not patent the lightening rod — instead communicating with David Hume, among others, to make sure that the world — at least those with access to learned journals — could make free use of both the research implications and the practical value of his investigations into the behavior of electricity. He didn’t try to hang on to the rights to the Franklin stove.
If he did choose to keep some trade secrets that advantaged the work that made him prosperous — the techniques he used to render early American paper money more secure against counterfeits — that was one exception against a life time of free public dissemination of discoveries and inventions that he understood to have been built on the work of predecessor and collaborators, to be improved upon still further by the efforts of strangers to come. [FWIW — I wrote about Franklin’s role as a currency innovator in last October’s American History. Sadly, the piece itself is not online, though I think a draft may show up in MIT’s DSpace archive eventually.
You should all go get Hyde’s book for yourselves, but just to shove Barton’s ignorant lies back down his slimy, authoritarian-slime-filled cake-hole, consider this quote from the chapter Hyde titled “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”:
Franklin believed that property should not command society, society should command property: “Private Property..is a Creature of Society and is subject to the Cals of that Society whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing.” The contributions that private property makes to public needs are not, therefore, “to be considered as conferring a Benefit to the Public…but as the Return of an Obligation previously received or the Payment of a Just Debt.” (Common as Air, pp. 132-133. The Franklin quote is from “Queries and Remarks on a Paper entitled ‘Hints for the Members of [the Constitutional] Convention No II in teh Federal Gazette of Tuesday Nov 3d 1789.]
The shorter: Franklin was down for net neutrality.
You can disagree with his argument, of course. It’s a wingnut folly to accord the status of revolution to texts that they rarely, if ever read. Mine are different pathologies, no doubt.
But while the fact that Ben Franklin said something does not make it inerrant truth, still, if I may, can I suggest to the Mr. Barton that before he yaps about what the founders thought about something, it might be a good idea to, you know, actually read what they had to say on the subject?
*Absolutely no good can come of this metaphor.
Image: David Martin, Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1767. I’ve always loved this portrait for the fact that Franklin commissioned it while directing that he be painted with the bust of Newton watching over him.