Chapter 9 Justice and Development
How will the emergence of a substantial sector of nonmarket, commons-based production in the information economy affect questions of distribution and human well-being? The pessimistic answer is, very little. Hunger, disease, and deeply rooted racial, ethnic, or class stratification will not be solved by a more decentralized, nonproprietary information production system. Without clean water, basic literacy, moderately well-functioning governments, and universal practical adoption of the commitment to treat all human beings as fundamentally deserving of equal regard, the fancy Internet-based society will have little effect on the billions living in poverty or deprivation, either in the rich world, or, more urgently and deeply, in poor and middle-income economies. There is enough truth in this pessimistic answer to require us to tread lightly in embracing the belief that the shift to a networked information economy can indeed have meaningful effects in the domain of justice and human development.
Despite the caution required in overstating the role that the networked information economy can play in solving issues of justice, it is important to recognize that information, knowledge, and culture are core inputs into human welfare. Agricultural knowledge and biological innovation are central to food security. Medical innovation and access to its fruits are central to living a long and healthy life. Literacy and education are central to individual growth, to democratic self-governance, and to economic capabilities. Economic growth itself is critically dependent on innovation and information. For all these reasons, information policy has become a critical element of development policy and the question of how societies attain and distribute human welfare and well-being. Access to knowledge has become central to human development. The emergence of the networked information economy offers definable opportunities for improvement in the normative domain of justice, as it does for freedom, by comparison to what was achievable in the industrial information economy.
We can analyze the implications of the emergence of the networked information economy for justice or equality within two quite different frames. The first is liberal, and concerned primarily with some form of equality of opportunity. The second is social-democratic, or development oriented, and focused on universal provision of a substantial set of elements of human well-being. The availability of information from nonmarket sources and the range of opportunities to act within a nonproprietary production environment improve distribution in both these frameworks, but in different ways. Despite the differences, within both frameworks the effect crystallizes into one of access-access to opportunities for one's own action, and access to the outputs and inputs of the information economy. The industrial economy creates cost barriers and transactional-institutional barriers to both these domains. The networked information economy reduces both types of barriers, or creates alternative paths around them. It thereby equalizes, to some extent, both the opportunities to participate as an economic actor and the practical capacity to partake of the fruits of the increasingly information-based global economy.
The opportunities that the network information economy offers, however, often run counter to the central policy drive of both the United States and the European Union in the international trade and intellectual property systems. These two major powers have systematically pushed for ever-stronger proprietary protection and increasing reliance on strong patents, copyrights, and similar exclusive rights as the core information policy for growth and development. Chapter 2 explains why such a policy is suspect from a purely economic perspective concerned with optimizing innovation. A system that relies too heavily on proprietary approaches to information production is not, however, merely inefficient. It is unjust. Proprietary rights are designed to elicit signals of people's willingness and ability to pay. In the presence of extreme distribution differences like those that characterize the global economy, the market is a poor measure of comparative welfare. A system that signals what innovations are most desirable and rations access to these innovations based on ability, as well as willingness, to pay, overrepresents welfare gains of the wealthy and underrepresents welfare gains of the poor. Twenty thousand American teenagers can simply afford, and will be willing to pay, much more for acne medication than the more than a million Africans who die of malaria every year can afford to pay for a vaccine. A system that relies too heavily on proprietary models for managing information production and exchange is unjust because it is geared toward serving small welfare increases for people who can pay a lot for incremental improvements in welfare, and against providing large welfare increases for people who cannot pay for what they need.