Intellectual property is as much property in the eyes of the natural law as tangible property. Consider this passage from a BBC report:
Thailand’s health ministry says it has approved the production of cheaper versions of patented anti-AIDS and heart disease drugs. Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla said the step was necessary to make the cost of the medicines—Kaletra and Plavix—more affordable. “We have to do this because we don’t have enough money to buy safe and necessary drugs for the people under the government’s universal health scheme.” (“Thailand backs patent drug copies,” BBC News, January 29, 2007.)
This state-sanctioned theft of intellectual property is no different under the natural law than if Thailand permitted its citizens to seize cargo containers on the high seas and justified it by saying, “We have to do this because we don’t have enough money to buy electronic consumer goods under the government’s universal free electronic consumer goods scheme.”
The Thais claim their action is justifiable because, notwithstanding that it infringes property rights, it will save lives, and therefore serves a greater good. However, the greater good argument, which at first blush seems morally profound, can be seen, upon reflection, to be a rejection of morality altogether. This is because it deems to be acceptable whatever seems practical. This evil creed, developed by the Utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, has since been used by socialists, communists, and fascists to justify all manner of violations of the rights of person and property. For example, when Stalin caused the great famine in the Ukraine that killed millions, he justified it on the grounds of the greater good of preserving the revolution.
Utilitarians today respond, “Stalin killed millions because he deliberately drove unclothed, unfed people into the winter snows to freeze to death. His actions were an immoral application of the greater good argument.” This is the seductive rationale of benevolent socialism: they reject the KGB and gulags, instead they just tax 70 percent of people’s income. They don’t drive you naked into the snow, and you still have more than enough to live on.
However, what the benevolent socialists fail to realize is that their actions have both direct and indirect ramifications—what Bastiat called seen and unseen. What is unseen by benevolent socialists is that people are spiritually destroyed by high taxes. People who have been spiritually destroyed by socialism have tiny families, with one or two children—not enough to replace themselves. As Algernon Sidney explained, this makes benevolent socialism, in the long run, worse than Soviet socialism and national socialism:
There is a way of killing worse than that of the sword; … To prohibit from being born is to kill; those governments are in the highest degree guilty of blood, which by taking from men the means of living … . generally dissuade men from marriage, by taking from them all ways of subsisting their families. (Discourses Concerning Government, 1689.)
In the case of stolen AIDS drugs, what is seen is a healthy pharmaceutical company giving a 6 percent return on capital to its shareholders. What is not seen is that if property rights were respected, that same company would return 25 percent or more to its shareholders. Those returns would attract vast amounts of capital, to be directed towards finding a cure for AIDS. With all the additional research a cure would be found sooner.