Top image by Johan Viirok/Flickr
Last week, The New York Times’ editorial board endorsed the Right to Repair movement. While spurred by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) support for a farmer-focused repair bill, the Times’ board went further. “Owners of consumer electronic products deserve the same protection as farmers,” the Times wrote, and they also saw “a clear need for a national and enforceable standard.”
The Times’ editorial posted Saturday. By Sunday night, free-market advocates had a response ready… kind of. Jeffrey A. Tucker, Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research, claimed that the Right to Repair movement is “not the free market at work,” but instead “government intervention that steals the language of market competition to invalidate property rights and contracts.”
He couldn’t be more wrong. The backup for Tucker’s claims is muddled, sometimes contradictory, and seemingly written as a knee-jerk response to the New York Times’ sudden appearance in the Right to Repair debate. It’s too bad, because many, or most, of the best arguments for Right to Repair are free-market arguments.
Here’s why we think free market advocates like Tucker—and many repair professionals— should be comfortable with what the Right to Repair movement is really trying to achieve.
Tucker suggests that allowing owners and third parties to fix devices could be “an invitation to scam artists” to mess up devices with, since the customer could then fall back on their warranty to have a company fix the issue. Right to Repair legislation, he later writes, could impose “a legal obligation to comply with a warranty no matter what.”
He’s mistaken, for a reason that’s very easy to explain and understand: Right to Repair does not interfere with any company’s warranty. Warranties, with rare exceptions, are conditional, limited, and spelled out clearly under the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act of 1975. Warranties can cover as much or as little of your product as the company likes, so long as they stick to that contract. You agree to those terms when you buy the thing.
Nobody advocating for Right to Repair—not iFixit, not The Repair Association, not Sen. Warren, nor the New York Times—thinks that John Deere should be forced to fix the tractor you’ve turned into a Mad Max prop, or that Apple has to repair your iPhone after a cheap eBay battery exploded. Warranties are a set of promises, usually very limited, that a company will repair or replace your device if it fails in unexpected ways.
Instead, Right to Repair is about allowing people other than the product maker to fix the thing you own outside the warranty. It has very little to do with the company’s obligations under their own warranty. Suggesting that the Right to Repair movement is trying to turn warranties into idealistic consumer fantasies is misdirection.
Tucker introduces a car analogy (not uncommon in technology discussions) to suggest a law is not needed. He ends up proving how effective such laws can be instead:
Think about this as it relates to cars. If you own a ten-year-old Honda, do you take it to the dealer? If you do, you either don’t know the racket or you don’t care about money. Everyone knows, one supposes, that going to the dealer for simple repairs is a financial mistake. More complex repairs require that the user make more careful decisions.
In other words, the free market here seems to be working just fine, without impositions of new laws that risk creating strange distortions in the market.
Tucker is right that local shops are the place to take your car for most fixes. That’s largely due to the foundational laws of the Right to Repair movement, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act of 2012.
The 1990 Amendments demanded that every U.S. car be able to monitor its own emissions by 1996. In order to do that, repair shops needed a standardized way to interface with the car’s monitors. Thus was born the OBD-II port, which ensured that you don’t have to pay a ransom for every Check Engine light.
But cars continued to get more complicated, and companies more secretive, after 1996. Massachusetts residents responded by voting in a repair-minded ballot initiative in 2012. After that, the major trade groups representing car makers agreed to incorporate the initiative as a national standard, rather than wait for a patchwork of state bills to follow. Now repair shops can access the same diagnostic tools and data as dealerships, beyond just the OBD-II port. Before this legislation and the more-even playing field it created, car makers had what Tucker himself describes as “a very obvious economic incentive… to exaggerate the dangers of unapproved repairs.”
So, certainly, we invite people to think about their broader right to repair as it relates to cars.
Some free market advocates argue that Right to Repair is pushing for overreaching regulations. We’d argue the opposite. Copyright law, as it pertains to software, is an overreach that Right to Repair laws work to scale back, making the market freer for average consumers.
We’re not the only ones that think so. Reason, a libertarian magazine, wrote about this misuse of copyright in June 2018, after Eric Lundgren was sentenced to prison for cloning Windows restore CDs. Reason quotes Kit Walsh, attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on the clash between strict copyright restrictions on software and living with software all around us:
“The list of products and technologies that are affected by this restriction is practically infinite because it’s anything that has software embedded in it,” says Walsh. “There’s a lingering hook that the seller has in your property that they are arguing gives them really broad powers to dictate how you use that property going forward.”
Writing at the blog Being Libertarian, Alon Ganon details the many ways Apple has intruded to stop third-party repairs, while simultaneously refusing to fix many of their products’ inherent design flaws (including “Flexgate” and its many variants). Ganon ends on this call to action:
So in conclusion, libertarians and conservatives should work together to enact right to repair legislation just like we have for computers and automobiles, for cell phones and every device we can purchase. The fact is once I have purchased an item and it is in my possession, I should have an inalienable right to do whatever I please with my own property without interference from any government mandate or law passed through some corporate protectionist lobbyist.
Demanding that companies stop putting artificial limits on your ability to make your stuff work better and last longer is not intrusive regulation. It’s giving people—and the market—the freedom to work toward something better. That’s why the Times endorsed the movement, and why we fight for it.