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Libertarian Answer Man: Scarcity, Superabundance, Conflictability

An intelligent observation from a reader of Legal Foundations of a Free Society (my comments interspersed)

Page 486 had a great example of nuggets in this book that give me a different perspective. Nothing earth shattering, just a more accurate way to understand.

Scarcity is a particularly poor term, for this reason: think of paper clips and why we call them scarce goods. At the root it has nothing to do with the class of paper clips. It’s rather about a specific instance of a paper clip. Now ask if 2 or more people can use that specific object simultaneously without conflict: no. That makes it an economic good. This means we can be talking about the Mona Lisa, of which there is 1, or that paper clip, of which there is (drumroll) … 1.

Yes. Scarcity has two meanings: the colloquial one of “non-abundance,” and the more technical economic meaning which is closer to “rivalrous,” which really means “non-superabundant”. This leads to confusion and equivocation.

In other words, there’s always only ever 1 of a particular economic good, even though (as in most cases) it’s a member of a class of many similar objects. This shows why “conflictability” is a superior term to “scarcity”; it’s so clear a specific object is subject to possible conflict…even if there’s lots of other instances of it.

Then to ideas: the number pi, the song Happy Birthday, or my oh-so-delicious Mrs Fields cookie recipe, are not instantiated objects, but conceptual arrangements. Two, or two billion people, can use them simultaneously without conflict.

Correct. Ideas and information and patterns, knowledge, “impatternings,” “arrangements,” — none of these are scarce things–that is, conflictable, or rivalrous things. Another way to think about it: these “things” may be “things” in the sense that the concepts are valid, useful, have referents; but they are not independently existing things in the relevant sense for property rights: that is, they exist only as features or characteristics of other already-rivalrous things. In other words, information never exists independently, on its own; it requires a carrier, a substrate, a medium, which is itself an existing, rivalrous (scarce; conflictable) thing, which itself already has an owner. Words cannot just exist in the ether. They are arrangements, or impatternings, of a medium like a piece of paper of memory device. [Note that Neil Schulman came close to recognizing this, as he morphed his IP theory over the years, in response to my criticisms, first from “logorights,” then to “media-carried property” or MCP, and finally to “origitent”. See ch. 16 of LFFS.] An object that is rivalrous has an owner, and it has certain characteristics or features or “properties”; its age, size, location, mass, shape, color, and so on. A red car has an owner and one of its attributes is its redness; the owner owns the red car but does not own the car’s characteristics; he does no own red or redness or the car’s weight–nor its shape or arrangement. To own this would be to own a universal and that would imply he owns all other objects that have similar characteristics; but these other objects are already owned by others. [On owning universals and features or characteristics of objects, see LFFS, ch. 15, Part IV.F]

Likewise if you own a book you own the ink but not the “way-the-ink-is-arranged”.

In the future when I explain this to others, I’ll take care to stress the conflictable nature of a specific object, rather than of the class of objects.

This brought me to Table 1 on page 492, as well as some of the references to “free goods”. I see the term generally means ideas, but can sometimes mean superabundant things, e.g., oceanic salt water.

From there I wondered where the latter belongs in the table. I believe it goes under the Scarce column since it’s a physical thing. But whether it is a Good or Nongood is subjective, as you indicate. Its astounding abundance means it’s probably a Nongood, given demand is satisfied…no need to economize. Nonetheless (and here I return to the single instance), if I scoop up a gallon of it, I’ve homesteaded that (specific and particular) gallon. This is what seems to transform that gallon into a conflictable Good.


See also LFFS, pp. 33, 486 ; “On Conflictability and Conflictable Resources,” StephanKinsella.com (Jan. 31, 2022);

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