Monday, February 22, 2010

Google Results League Table: "_______ is Theft"

FURTHER UPDATE (Mar 2, 2010 4:50 PM): In what has now become a world-class blogalicious cock-up, commenter Albert Esplugas reports that he cannot reproduce Hans's figures. And I couldn't either, at least I couldn't yesterday. But now I can again. Not sure what is going on. Anyway, be wary of any reference to the number of Google results that some phrase or other supposedly returns. I'm clearly out of my depth here.



RETRACTION (Feb 25, 2010 2:12 PM): Commenter Hans has found a serious fault in my Google phrase search methods. I tried a "* is theft" search and noted the top responses that came up in the auto-complete box. But Hans simply typed in some other phrases and found the following:
"sex is theft": 40,400
"love is theft": 57,000
"everything is theft": 111,000
"government is theft": 10,300,000 (!)
This will teach me to post after my bed-time. Although I do suppose the fact that the numbers seemed plausible to everyone but Hans (and others who were dubious but who didn't bother to comment) says something?

Original (and now basically useless) post appears below:



In recent days, while following the raging inflation debates, I've noticed the phrase "Inflation is theft" in blog comments a lot. I remember that Ron Paul had a hand in popularizing the concept during his 2008 presidential run, as he criticized the United States's fiat money and Federal Reserve systems, which he argued lead to too much savings-munching inflation (which he considers theft).

It got me to thinking, "What else do people think is theft?" I'd heard of both taxation and property being equated to theft, even though the partisans of those views occupy opposite extremes of the economic policy spectrum. I wondered if other interest groups had hit upon the idea of branding the thing they didn't like as "theft."

So I did a Google search on the wildcard phrase "* is theft" and was a bit surprised by what I found, though I probably shouldn't have been. The top Google result, by far, was for "Piracy is theft," with 2.4 million results. Not high-seas piracy (though there were probably a few of those in there), but piracy in the sense of illegal downloading and/or copying of digital media, especially movies, video, music, and software. All by itself, Piracy accounted for 79% of the total results for the top 12 phrases combined. But the digital publishers, represented by powerful trade groups such as the RIAA and the MPAA, don't stop there. The terms Copying, Downloading, and Sampling are also in top 12, and together these four supposed theft-equivalents account for almost 80% of the total results.

Another surprise was that the phrase "Theft is theft" came in second, probably owing more to its rhetorical use by the digital publishers than as a logician's example of the law of identity, but I decided to give the logicians credit anyway.

Compared to the RIAA-MPAA juggernaut, the economic and political ideologues are a rag-tag bunch when it comes to applying the "theft" label to things they don't care for. The Libertarians ("Taxation is theft") are the best of the rest, with the Pacifists ("War is theft"), and Anarchists ("Property is theft") not too far behind. The Communists ("Profit is theft") were a distant fifth, followed by the Academics (Plagiarism), the Squatters (Rent), and Ron Paul's Goldbugs (Inflation) coming in at number 11:


A graph of the distribution of the top 12 Thefts looks like this:


The blue bars show the actual counts, while the yellow line traces the function of the trend line specified in the equation. It's a classic power-law distribution of the type that Wired's Chris Anderson wrote about in his 2006 book The Long Tail, where a single market leader grabs the vast majority of market share and is trailed by a long list of lesser players:



Images from top: Nick Humphries via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license; the author; and Hay Kranen via Wikimedia Commons.

12 comments:

Lord John Whorfin said...

Copyright pirates, eh?

All I can say to this post is: "Feast your eyes on this mateys -- A whole chestful of laser discs!"

nicole said...

The "piracy" example wouldn't have dawned on me either, but I like what we have here: it's the smallest interest group, where the losses to the respective theft would be most concentrated, that is doing the most to "get the word out."

Jake Miller said...

Your Google-Fu is strong.

How did you get those %ages?

Chris Hartman said...

It's clear that nicole has studied some Political Economy, or else she is a political-economy savant; she's right on target with her insight that on any issue where the benefits are concentrated and the costs are diffuse, the concentrated interests will go to the mat to maximize their benefits, to the general detriment of the rest of us. This happens time and time again in public policy, for example in international trade policy. Great comment, nicole!

Kristan J. Wheaton said...

I agree with earlier comments regarding your prodigious google-fu...

Please explain how you got your numbers, Obi-wan!

Tom said...

it's the smallest interest group, where the losses to the respective theft would be most concentrated, that is doing the most to "get the word out."

I'd be careful with that logic. It can be applied in all sorts of ways. If society decides to make you a slave, we all benefit, except for the small interest group (you) that might well want to get the word out.

Hans said...

"sex is theft": 40,400
"love is theft": 57,000
"everything is theft": 111,000
"government is theft": 10,300,000 (!)

:-)

nicole said...

I'd be careful with that logic. It can be applied in all sorts of ways. If society decides to make you a slave, we all benefit, except for the small interest group (you) that might well want to get the word out.

I don't understand your point. My statement was not normative but descriptive. What you describe has already happened. And the "taxation is theft" word-spreaders would say it is happening right now. They just haven't yet gotten good enough at getting the word out.

ts said...

taxes ARE theft = 21'100'000

ts said...

My mistake, I left out the quotes. With them it's only 20'100

Albert Esplugas said...

Chris,

Have you double-checked Hans' figures? I can't replicate any of his searches... So I guess your original post still stands.

Chris Hartman said...

Thanks Albert.

I did check Hans's figures, but improperly, by not placing quotation marks around the phrases.

Doing this, I come up with some much smaller numbers, like 8 or 16. Most of the time. But then sometimes it says 39,000 results. Basically what it all comes down to is that my analytical method is way too unreliable to be of any real use.

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