Corporations are primarily intellectual property rentiers

Gavin Mueller has a great article in the summer issue of Jacobin Magazine about piracy, and at one point drops this jaw-dropping statistic: “Intellectual property makes up 80 percent of the net worth of US corporations and 60 percent of their exports.” I ran the statistic down and found that it apparently originated from an FTC report called The Evolving IP Marketplace. This is an incredible statistic for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is that it strikes at the core of American economic mythology.

We like to think of the US economy as one driven by private enterprise that is independent of government help. Leftists often point out that the independence from government is an illusion: government investment plays a significant role in the economy and, more fundamentally, property ownership and contract enforcement are government creations. For whatever reason, those criticisms never seem to have any purchase, and people continue thinking that enterprise is independent of government.

These intellectual property statistics provide another — ideally more persuasive — way to argue that business really is extremely dependent on government. Intellectual property is a pure government fiction. In the default governmentless economy that inhabits the imagination of conservatives, there would be nothing to stop someone from seeing an idea or innovation, and then using it for their own ends. Government steps in to destroy this kind of idea appropriation, on the premise that inventing intellectual property monopolies creates economic distortions that lead to more innovation, research, and development.

Whatever you think of the incentive argument, there is no way you can say intellectual property holdings are somehow detached from the government. They are created by the government, handed out by the government, and then enforced by the government. And now these government fictions make up 80% of the net worth of US corporations. One may not be able to use this stat to say “you didn’t build that,” but one could certainly use it to say “you are wildly dependent on the government for the entire worth of your company.”