The Wenzel IP Embarrassment

Bob Wenzel and Stephen Kinsella had their much-anticipated ’debate’ about IP yesterday.  Here’s the podcast, although you may want to spare yourself the agony.  It’s 2h30m long and is mostly Wenzel ranting and raving in a logically incoherent manner.  Not sure anyone has been brave enough to sit through the whole thing.  Less of a debate and more of a dogmatic, brainless Wenzel shouting show.

The backstory: In February Ron Paul filed a complaint with a UN intellectual property arbitration agency in fight over his namesake website.  Paul believes the website run by his loyal supporters, RonPaul.com, should rightfully belong to him and wants to wrestle ownership and control of the domain name from its current, legitimate owners, arguing that he has a ‘common law trademark’ on his name.  As great as Ron Paul is, he’s wrong on this one and this great libertarian’s use of a coercive supranational state agency to achieve his legal ends is a little more than ironic and disappointing.  Wenzel jumped into the mix, coming to the defense of Paul by claiming the fan site is “misleading” Internet surfers into thinking they’re on Ron Paul’s site instead of just his fan’s site.

At some point anti-IP libertarian lawyer and scholar Stephen Kinsella got into the mix, and him and Wenzel exchanged some petty insults at each other and challenged each other to an IP debate set for 1 April 2013 where Wenzel bizarrely said he would “smash” the “clueless” Kinsella.

This spat actually pre-dates Feb 2013 by quite some time.  The RonPaul.com debacle merely served as a catalyst to reignite it.

Wenzel’s arrogance pre-debate was staggering for someone who is obviously a non-specialist in the area, especially considering Kinsella is a 20-year+ intellectual property lawyer and published scholar in matters of intellectual property.  Did Wenzel really think he could bring arguments Kinsella had not heard before?

As I tweeted two days before the event:

Bob Wenzel is an Austro-libertarian blogger/market analyst based in the US, and chief editor of the Economic Policy Journal.  He’s risen to particular prominence in recent years since the crash of Lehman Brothers with incisive and useful market commentary and trading/investment advice.

But with this performance yesterday Wenzel seems to have greatly devalued his stock.

He couldn’t answer a simple Kinsella question for two and half hours , and repeatedly invoked other scholars views on IP in a bizarre appeal to authority.  Wenzel’s appeal to Rothbard’s authority is particularly odd since Kinsella acknowledges that Rothbard did not have all his ducks in a row regarding IP.  Moreover, Hans-Herman Hoppe, probably the leading austro-libertarian theorist alive today (in the Rothbardian tradition to boot) backs Kinsella’s IP views, which Wenzel seems to ignore or deny.

Kinsella summarises the debate here.  Wenzel’s summary and podcast are here in a post adolescently titled “Kinsella Crushed!!”.  Not only is it childish, but it is a lie, since Kinsella’s position was not refuted at all.

As to who ‘won’ the debate, it is hands-down Kinsella.  While he too stooped to name-calling eventually after incessant badgering by Wenzel, his position remains unrefuted, while Wenzel is yet to offer a coherent position at all.  Moreover, to the extent that Wenzel has a vague position, it is entirely non-unique.  His arguments are old and tired.  Wenzel is not an original theorist like Kinsella, Rothbard or Hoppe.  He is a re-stater of positions, a good analyst – not a groundbreaker.

The comments sections of Kinsella’s, Wenzel’s and the YouTube posts tell their own story – this was an unmitigated embarrassment for Wenzel.

This is a great pity.  Bob Wenzel has done some good work lately.  His speech at the New York Fed in 2012 was one of the great, if unsung, libertarian moments of speaking truth to power.  Only recently, in March, he gave the Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture at the Austrian Economics Research Conference 2013, where he gave a lecture entitled “An Examination of Key Factors in the Collapse of the Soviet Union” which was hailed by the great classical liberal historian Ralph Raico as “magnificent.”

Wenzel has some emotional vendetta against Jeffrey Tucker.  I’m not sure what it is and what’s the backstory there and I don’t really care at this point.  But it seems that possibly Wenzel’s brash intellectual arrogance has been sparked by some combination of his hatred for Jeff Tucker and his espousing of Kinsella’s views, mixed with some strange Rothbardian absolutist discipleship, mixed with some wonky IP views.

But most embarrassing of all for Wenzel is his complete lack of understanding of the concept of scarcity in general, and as it pertains (or doesn’t pertain, as it happens) to ideas in particular.  This is core economics stuff that Wenzel is missing.  He’s defining scarcity like most laymen do rather than its economic definition.  Wenzel thinks something residing in your brain, unobtainable by anyone else, makes it scarce.  He’s correct, because your physical brain is scarce and unreachable by anyone without psychic powers.  No one is denying it can be unique and unobtainable by anyone else, but the idea becomes non-scarce when it is discovered and re-used without excluding the original owner from using it.  Forcing it out of someones brain (if that were possible), would be a violation of their ownership of their body.  Kinsella is not arguing that we have a right to be able to access information in people’s brains, only that if/when that information is discovered it is legitimately able to be used by everyone else without impinging upon the property rights of the person who got the ‘original’ idea.

The post-debate dissection is likely to be scathing on Wenzel.  Even some of his biggest admirers are being forced to refute his non-libertarian IP positions.  For my part I think he has made some great contributions to the libertarian discourse recently, but he needs to get right out of the IP issue before it consumes all his credibility.  He also needs to take things down a notch and get classy, or else the ‘Wenzel brand’ could begin dying a slow, unsightly death.

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About Russell Lamberti

Russell Lamberti is a regular contributor to Mises SA. He is Chief Strategist at ETM Analytics, an Austrian-influenced economic research firm based in Johannesburg. Although he wrties about many topics, you'll most often find him slaying patent and copyright law and exposing the biggest bubble in history: fractional reserve banking.
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  • http://www.mises.co.za/blog Piet le Roux

    The lack of proper decorum has not only put me off listening to the “debate”, but is also putting me off reading more Wenzel. Which is a pity, because over the past two years he has been running some very good commentary and insight.

    I got a similar feeling reading some of what appeared on his blog regarding Rand Paul. If Wenzel lost some of the aggression and delivered the valuable, critical commentary on Rand Paul with more class, then reading his blog would be a much greater pleasure again.

  • http://twitter.com/CausticPop Gareth

    Perhaps Wenzel should take heed of one of Rothbard’s own “laws”: the tendency of scholars to specialize in what they’re worst at.

  • http://www.mises.co.za/blog Piet le Roux

    My thoughts exactly.

  • Nicolás Ferreira

    Regardless of someone’s position on the Ron Paul vs RonPaul.com drama, can we cut it with the ”loyal supporters” bs? It has been made clear already that the owners of the domain were never RP supporters, but instead a group of people who speculate on domain names as a business, grabbing them as soon as possible to later sell them at a better price.

    I’m not arguing for the legitimacy of the actions pursued by Dr. Paul, just want to clarify what most at Liberty Forest already know.

    • Russell Lamberti

      Then why the intense pro-RP blogging since 2005? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just park the site? Or did they do the intense blogging to get the site with a huge following to increase it’s re-sale value? Either way, out of fanhood or for commercial interests, they’ve boosted RP’s brand bigtime. And yes, whether they’re fans or not bears no relevance to the IP issue.

      • Nicolás Ferreira

        As far as I know, the current owners were not the original owners.

        Again, I agree it bears no relevance to the IP issue.

  • Patrick

    Just want to point out Wenzel’s “epic speech” at the Federal Reserve doesn’t appear to actually have been all it was cracked up to be…

    https://mises.org/community/forums/p/29028/516655.aspx#516655

  • Jayoh Cryptoast

    Wenzel behaved like a child, as did Kinsella to a lesser extent.

    This behavior is consistent from both of them. I read more Kinsella than Wenzel, and he almost always goes to cheapshots and disingenuous non-sequitors. What’s worse though, is that he does is when he’s winning.

    Kinsella could have made a statement. Instead he made a soap opera.

    IP is invalid. Let me debate Wenzel and I’ll win on facts without theater or name-calling. There were a thousand ways to corner Wenzel. Kinsella didn’t take advantage of them. The point is the point, but the sport is debate.

    Put it this way for either of them – the Harlem Globetrotters couldn’t compete with an actual professional basketball team, regardless their entertainment ability.

    Oh. My name isn’t big enough. Oh well.

    Wenzel is still wrong, and Kinsella still looks sophomoric.