9. Justice and Development

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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Summary of the chapter

Professor Benkler specifically contemplates the influence of burgeoning non-market common-based production on the issue of justice and development.

Current dominant market-based production lays its foundation on the economic incentive for production and innovation. It relies on the proprietary protection to create exclusive rights as the core policy for growth and development. However, the system has negative effects on the issue of distribution.

Starting from an overview of the theories of justice associated with liberalism. Professor Benkler argues that as long as we admit that poverty or plight could come from situations (bad luck) and not just a result of personal choices (responsitivity). Certain arrangements of wealth redistribution may be necessary to promote justice.

The issue of unequal distribution of wealth creates gross injustice at the international level. It is obvious for the distribution of food and medicine. Adolescents in America buy many kinds of medicines for acne and can afford it, while thousands of children in Africa and Asia die from diseases that can be cured easily by modern medicine but they cannot afford it. Furthermore, the market-based economy creates incentives for innovation to serve the needs of the rich and ignore the needs of the poor. More researches are conducted to cure minor diseases in the wealthy North rather than considering life-threatening deceases in the poor South.

Professor Benkler contends that accusing private corporations is not only useless but also unfair. Directors in such companies have fiduciary duties to maximise their shareholders’ wealth. The injustice result is the aggregate effect of the market-based production economy.

The common-based production economy provides an alternative to the market-based economy to generate innovations and productions that can satisfy the needs of the poor. Professor Benkler analyses different types of goods and provides an account about how common-based information economy may help to ameliorate the growing gap. For example, the MIT Open Courseware initiative provides students and teachers around the world with free and easy access to the knowledge generated by one of the best institutions in the world.

Food and medicine are the most urgent needs of developing countries. Current innovations in the agricultural biotechnological industry are increasingly relying on the private sector. Their innovations are protected by patent rights which prevents poor countries from using them as unaffordable. The common-based production model could also provide promising results in reversing such a trend. Efforts like PIPRA (Public Intellectual Property for Agriculture) or BIOS (Biotechnology Innovation for an Open Society) serve as examples for non-profit-driven research and overcome patent barriers created by the market-based economy. In the area of medical science, efforts have been made to increase research regarding developing countries health issues. A proposed experiment at the University of Indiana-Purdue University at Indianapolis provides simple, low-cost kits for training students in chemical synthesis to conduct experiments with a view to treating diseases in the developing countries. With enough redundancy across classrooms and institutions around the world, useful drugs might be invented to help developing countries.

The common-based production economy was made possible through the effect of the cheap communication framework provided by the Internet. Professor Benkler shows how the rich North could generate information and innovations for the poor South. However, what Internet could achieve is not only allowing more researchers to help developing countries, but also have an empowerment effect on the developing world. Professor Benkler mentioned that the insufficiency of food and drugs in many third-world nations is not only caused by the high prices but also caused by malfunctioning transportation and distribution. Bad governance has been identified by the World Bank as the major reason that cripples developing countries from development. Systemic corruption will jeopardize any efforts to help local people in these countries. The most vivid example is the GlaxoSmithKline case. In the year of 2002, Glaxo provided cheaper drugs treating patients with HIV in African countries but these drugs were resold at higher price in Europe by corrupted government officials in the African countries. Though the use of internet, information about local governments operations could be more easily observed by the people. For developing countries that have passed the threshold of having access to internet, such as China or India, the effect of empowerment of the people can be observed even under censorship. For other countries that cannot afford the basic infrastructure of having access to the Internet, the effort to create cheaper infrastructure has already been launched. MIT cooperated with a Taiwanese computer manufacturing company, Quanta, to manufacture cheap computers in order to allow “One Laptop Per Child” in developing countries. Only through empowerment of the people in the developing countries, can developing world really come up with their own way to rescue themselves out from the vicious circle. Professor Benkler raises an important question in this chapter. He asks: “ What has Wikipedia got to do with the 49 percent of the population of Congo that lacks sustainable access to improve water resources?” He answers this question by how the new common-based production information economy in the developed countries can produce more goods and innovations to benefit the developing countries. The common-based economy could also come up with programs such as the MIT-Quanta “One Child Per Laptop” initiative to allow people in the developing countries to have cheaper and easier access to knowledge and find out their own way of development. The current infrastructure of the internet, dominated by companies such as Microsoft and Intel, is itself a problem. Endless coerced upgrading practices protected by the Intellectual Property system and formidable network externality make the infrastructure of internet towards an unaffordable direction for the poor South. More efforts should be made to allow cheaper alternatives to be generated by the common-based information economy.


Liberal Theories of Justice and the Networked Information Economy

Benkler sorts liberal theories of justice into buckets, based on how they explain the sources of inequality. The three primary explanations are (1) luck, (2) responsibility, and (3) structure. The main thesis of this section is that the networked information economy offers concrete improvements over proprietary market economies along all three lines of liberal theories of justice.


Luck refers to “reasons for the poverty of an individual that are beyond his or her control, and that are part of that individual’s lot in life unaffected by his or her choices or actions.”

John Rawls - A Theory of Justice (amazon), or A Theory of Justice (wikipedia)

Benkler's use of Rawls' work is rooted in three of Rawls' principles.

  • First, Rawls starts from the foundational assumption that the poorest people are in their condition only because of dumb luck.
  • Second, Rawls is famous for his "difference principal," which proposes that society should provide those worst off with the benefits of redistribution or growth of wealth.
  • Third, Rawls uses a thought experiment called the "Veil of Innocence" to propose a mechanism to maximize justice for all members of society. Rawls proposes that principles of justice would be maximized when established from behind a theoretical “veil of innocence,” where “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities.” Only then would parties unselfishly maximize the probability that no member of society would experience poverty or injustice.

Benkler's observations:

  • If we were to rationally distribute our resources behind the "veil of innocence," we would make rationale decisions, but would not distribute wealth exactly equally. We will trade overall productivity to help the worst cases, but we won't, and shouldn't, make the huge sacrifices in productivity necessary for a totally equal system.


Responsibility refers to “causes for the poverty of an individual that can be traced back to his or her actions or choices.

Robert Nozick - [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0465097200/qid=1146501412/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-2322222-6539953?v=glance