Column on Another Restraint of Trade

Another Restraint of Trade
Tibor R. Machan
When I was teaching at Auburn University some publishing firms decided to
lobby the Alabama government–some division of it supposedly concerned
about ethics. They were asking that a ban be imposed on professors selling
books they receive from publishers as unsolicited examination copies. And
the government was on the verge of complying!
I learned of this and immediately contacted this ethics commission in
Montgomery and went to testify about how such a ban amounts to restraint
of free trade, something no government ought to encourage, let alone
perpetrate. Governments are supposed to protect our liberties and not to
violate them, and such a ban would clearly be a violation. When you
receive gifts from others at their initiative, there can be no legally
enforceable strings attached. (I won’t even return something I am sent
unsolicited when asked to do so! I don’t work for these people!)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with publishers and authors making a
living off their books but when they decide to promote their wares by
giving out free copies, they must live with the consequences. One such
consequence is that they will give away or sell these books to willing
buyers. Sometimes this comes to no more than giving a copy to a student or
a colleague. At other times vendors may come around and offer a few bucks
to take the examination copies away from one’s home or office library, to
purge them to make room for new books.
The idea that once one has received these unsolicited books one must
accommodate the publishers by keeping them for oneself or by returning
them is morally odious. If you get something you didn’t ask for, you are
completely free to give it away or sell it to willing recipients. This is
no different from one receiving a gift of a book of which one already has
a copy and then selling or giving away the extra copy. Or indeed from
selling one’s used furniture or car!
The right to private property implies all this. Something that you own you
have the right to sell. And when someone sends you something that you have
not asked for, you become its owner, free and clear. This is so even if
inside the item you have been given there is a note urging you to return
it–no one is authorized to impose obligations on us to which we have not
agreed, though of course you are also free to grant the request.
Well, lo and behold one of the book buyers who visits us occasionally at
Chapman University told me recently that in Arizona a bunch of publishers
are attempting to get the government to ban trade in unsolicited
examination copies. Déjà vu! I told the merchant who informed me of all
this that I would be glad to help out, send an affidavit or even travel to
Phoenix to testify against the corrupt merchants who want to both eat
their cake and have it: They want to send around promotional gifts to
encourage the sale of their books but then want to avoid living with one
likely result of this promotional strategy, namely the sale by the
recipients of the books they gave away. Well, one doesn’t get to do this
in a free country. Once you have given something to someone else, without
prior conditions agreed upon, the recipient has every right to do with it
anything peaceful, as he or she pleases, even burn it in a fireplace. (It
might be a dumb idea to do this, although when I consider how cluttered my
office and home libraries are because I am so reluctant to toss many books
I’ve read or never will read, it may not be such a bad idea.)
An interesting lesson to be learned from this evidently minor case of
businesses trying to get politicians to protect them from competition is
that by no means are people in business above such behavior. Free markets
are OK as far as those in business are concerned but the first group to
embark on restricting it are often the very people in business. As Adam
Smith observed back in 1776, "People of the same trade seldom meet
together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a
conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices."
Free market champions are often and very unjustly charged with favoring
people in business as against, say, wage laborers or other professionals.
From the start this has been a distortion of their attitudes, including
that of contemporary libertarian champions of free markets.

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