Friday, February 03, 2012

French court punishes Google Maps - for being free

One of the many misrepresentations and distortions of libertarians is the belief that we all want to reduce everything to money, and for life and the world to be a collection of financial transactions.  It is a core part of the post-modernist leftwing critique of capitalism and free market liberalism, yet it is one that has no basis whatsoever in libertarian or capitalist philosophy, politics or even discourse.  Indeed it is Marxism that puts materialism about everything else.  It is seen in the incessant collectivisation of people into classes, based on incomes or wealth.  It was seen in the Soviet Union's ruthless pursuit of construction and production regardless of the cost to individual freedom or the environment.  Almost every policy proposal from the left of the political spectrum involves spending more money or taking money from people to spend on what they want.  For anti-capitalists the problem is invariably around there being "not enough money" for those they approve of and "too much money" owned or earned by those they don't.  The Khmer Rouge abolished money, but by then it had completely enslaved almost the entire population of Cambodia (after executing many) and people were all meant to work for the love of each other (ignoring they had guns pointed at them, literally, the whole time, and were all on the brink of starvation).

Yet I know many in the left will claim wide support for charity, and quite a few people in charitable endeavours and who provide assistance, time and money for needy people don't do so for money.  They do so out of genuine human benevolence for other people.  They want to see people lifted out of poverty, they want to see children getting education, they want people to be cured of diseases.   You see it is part of human nature to have some compassion for others.  However, if you consider mainstream political discourse, the left would claim that it represents a charitable view of the world, compared to that of the "right" which is all about people being individuals who care nothing for others.

Objectivists don't hold to that view, for we believe that human benevolence is a rational pursuit of one's values.  The most universal example is with families and close relationships.  Given humans raise children, an activity that involves dedicating a significant amount of time, effort and money to providing for others, demonstrates that it is inherent to give a damn about others.  Wider families and friendships see that happening informally, all the time.  Human beings are mostly social, they enjoy the company of others and get pleasure from sharing, interacting and giving and getting from each other, voluntarily.

Libertarians reject the characterisation of capitalists and free-market advocates as wanting to atomise humanity, and have people who "don't care about the poor", or who always want people to exchange goods, services or indeed any form of interaction for money or some form of predatory gratification.   Libertarians embrace one core principle -  voluntary adult human interaction.  Human beings should feel free to interact with each other as they see mutually fit, which can mean asking for help, or giving help.  If people refuse, then that should be respected.  For without the voluntary element, one is no longer being kind or benevolent, but is submission to force - a concept that is incompatible with benevolence.

So why have I gone on about this diatribe? Well companies often do not expect money for goods and services.  They may offer free samples for promotion, or they may simply regard the provision of common goods, services or even space as complementary to what they do.  Shopping malls are large privately owned common areas where people can spend considerable time with seating, warmth and bathroom facilities, for nothing.  Google Maps is a service that is available for free online, and offers a basic level of mapping to anyone wishing to access it.

However it has come afoul of French competition law, which apparently treats a company offering a service for free as being negative.  Competition law exists as a response to arguments that dominant businesses in a market can act in a way that prevents competition and is harmful to consumers.  Setting aside that libertarians reject this argument, what is going on in France is not about consumers.  It is about protectionism.

The French Commercial Court has decided that Google Maps offers "unfair competition" to a French cartography firm called Bottin Cartographes, and is fining Google US$600,000 for daring to offer Google Maps for free.

What has Google Maps done wrong?  Has it stolen any intellectual property? No. What it is offering is the product of its own efforts, purchased, produced and accumulated through voluntary interaction.

Is it harming consumers?  No. Quite the opposite, they are getting a useful resource for free.  They are benefiting from a large company offering a service they need not pay for.

The problem for the French is that Google Maps is undermining another business, a French business (this sort of economic nationalism is of course, racism practiced by socialists).  A business that rather than change what it does, focusing on value added or targeting specific markets, declares it has some high profile customers (Louis Vuitton), as if that makes it special.   So it should be protected from another business that offers its own maps for free.

This, is the French model of "compassionate "capitalism, unlike what they call "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism.   It is sometimes pointed out by socialists who see France as some sort of halfway model between free market capitalism and socialism, but this court case reveals it for what it really is.

French competition law is not about consumers.  They lose out.  Indeed France has long been one of the last EU Member States to open up its traditional monopolies to any form of legal competition at all, such as electricity, postal services and bus services.  That ignores the rampant protectionism of the agricultural sector, because French consumers can't be trusted to pay more for French produce (as they are expected to do).  So in France, this "socialist capitalism" actually means the ordinary citizen loses out, no free service.

French "capitalism" is about protecting old established businesses.  It is about entrenching a corporatist view that says it is more important that an existing business keeps doing what it is doing, making money from consumers that have little choice, and keeps people employed in that old business. 

It ignores the fact that if consumers had a choice, they may spend their money on something else, on something they want that isn't free, on a business that does have to compete for their money and which employs people.  A business (and employees) that suffer because of the protectionism of Bottin Cartographes.  It ignores that someone may set up a business or grow a business because a free map facilitates something innovative or affordable that was not when one had to buy a map from Bottin Cartographes.  Finally, it ignores that the people working for Bottin Cartographes might actually be innovative enough to diversify, specialise and generate more value by being different.

So in France, the country that rejects free market capitalism, when something is offered for no money it is offensive to the law.   It is offensive to me too.

The people of France may now get Google Maps blocked, sadly.  Whereas I think the right response to Bottin Cartographes is to boycott it.  Let this stinking little protectionism business, which uses courts rather than good products people want to pay for, not get money from those of us who do have a choice. 

Why should anyone, regardless of whether they are free market capitalists, or anti-capitalists want the law to step in and stop a business giving away its goods and services for nothing?  After all, it is not you paying for it, and you do not have to take what is offered?

1 comment:

Mark Hubbard said...

Great piece Liberty. The more you think about stories like this, and what is happening to the West, you just have to shake your head. When I first read about this I just laughed and laughed.