Chapter 9, section 1

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 9: Summary
Discuss Liberal Theories of Justice and the Networked Information Economy

Chapter 9: Justice and Development, Section 1:

Liberal Theories of Justice and the Networked Information Economy


Chapter 9: Introduction

Liberal Theories of Justice and the Networked Information Economy

Liberal theories of justice can be categorized according to how they characterize the sources of inequality in terms of luck, responsibility, and structure. By luck, I mean 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. By responsibility, I mean causes for the poverty of an individual that can be traced back to his or her actions or choices. By structure, I mean causes for the inequality of an individual that are beyond his or her control, but are traceable to institutions, economic organizations, or social relations that form a society's transactional framework and constrain the behavior of the individual or undermine the efficacy of his or her efforts at self-help.

We can think of John Rawls's Theory of Justice as based on a notion that the poorest people are the poorest because of dumb luck. His proposal for a systematic way of defending and limiting redistribution is the "difference principle." A society should organize its redistribution efforts in order to make those who are least well-off as well-off as they can be. The theory of desert is that, because any of us could in principle be the victim of this dumb luck, we would all have agreed, if none of us had known where we would be on the distribution of bad luck, to minimize our exposure to really horrendous conditions. The practical implication is that while we might be bound to sacrifice some productivity to achieve redistribution, we cannot sacrifice too much. If we did that, we would most likely be hurting, rather than helping, the weakest and poorest. Libertarian theories of justice, most prominently represented by Robert Nozick's entitlement theory, on the other hand, tend to ignore bad luck or impoverishing structure. They focus solely on whether the particular holdings of a particular person at any given moment are unjustly obtained. If they are not, they may not justly be taken from the person who holds them. Explicitly, these theories ignore the poor. As a practical matter and by implication, they treat responsibility as the source of the success of the wealthy, and by negation, the plight of the poorest-leading them to be highly resistant to claims of redistribution.

The basic observation that an individual's economic condition is a function of his or her own actions does not necessarily resolve into a blanket rejection of redistribution, as we see in the work of other liberals. Ronald Dworkin's work on inequality offers a critique of Rawls's, in that it tries to include a component of responsibility alongside recognition of the role of luck. In his framework, if (1) resources were justly distributed and (2) bad luck in initial endowment were compensated through some insurance scheme, then poverty that resulted from bad choices, not bad luck, would not deserve help through redistribution. While Rawls's theory ignores personal responsibility, and in this regard, is less attractive from the perspective of a liberal theory that respects individual autonomy, it has the advantage of offering a much clearer metric for a just system. One can measure the welfare of the poorest under different redistribution rules in market economies. One can then see how much redistribution is too much, in the sense that welfare is reduced to the point that the poorest are actually worse off than they would be under a less-egalitarian system. You could compare the Soviet Union, West Germany, and the United States of the late 1960s-early 1970s, and draw conclusions. Dworkin's insurance scheme would require too fine an ability to measure the expected incapacitating effect of various low endowments-from wealth to intelligence to health-in a market economy, and to calibrate wealth endowments to equalize them, to offer a measuring rod for policy. It does, however, have the merit of distinguishing-for purposes of judging desert to benefit from society's redistribution efforts-between a child of privilege who fell into poverty through bad investments coupled with sloth and a person born into a poor family with severe mental defects. Bruce Ackerman's Social Justice and the Liberal State also provides a mechanism of differentiating the deserving from the undeserving, but adds policy tractability by including the dimension of structure to luck and responsibility. In addition to the dumb luck of how wealthy your parents are when you are born and what genetic endowment you are born with, there are also questions of the education system you grow up with and the transactional framework through which you live your life-which opportunities it affords, and which it cuts off or burdens. His proposals therefore seek to provide basic remedies for those failures, to the extent that they can, in fact, be remedied. One such proposal is Anne Alstott and Ackerman's idea of a government-funded personal endowment at birth, coupled with the freedom to squander it and suffer the consequential reduction in welfare.//1 He also emphasizes a more open and egalitarian transactional framework that would allow anyone access to opportunities to transact with others, rather than depending on, for example, unequal access to social links as a precondition to productive behavior.

The networked information economy improves justice from the perspective of every single one of these theories of justice. Imagine a good that improves the welfare of its users-it could be software, or an encyclopedia, or a product review. Now imagine a policy choice that could make production of that good on a nonmarket, peer-production basis too expensive to perform, or make it easy for an owner of an input to exclude competitors-both market-based and social-production based. For example, a government might decide to: recognize patents on software interfaces, so that it would be very expensive to buy the right to make your software work with someone else's; impose threshold formal education requirements on the authors of any encyclopedia available for school-age children to read, or impose very strict copyright requirements on using information contained in other sources (as opposed to only prohibiting copying their language) and impose high penalties for small omissions; or give the putative subjects of reviews very strong rights to charge for the privilege of reviewing a product-such as by expanding trademark rights to refer to the product, or prohibiting a reviewer to take apart a product without permission. The details do not matter. I offer them only to provide a sense of the commonplace kinds of choices that governments could make that would, as a practical matter, differentially burden nonmarket producers, whether nonprofit organizations or informal peer-production collaborations. Let us call a rule set that is looser from the perspective of access to existing information resources Rule Set A, and a rule set that imposes higher costs on access to information inputs Rule Set B. As explained in chapter 2, it is quite likely that adopting B would depress information production and innovation, even if it were intended to increase the production of information by, for example, strengthening copyright or patent. This is because the added incentives for some producers who produce with the aim of capturing the rents created by copyright or patents must be weighed against their costs. These include (a) the higher costs even for those producers and (b) the higher costs for all producers who do not rely on exclusive rights at all, but instead use either a nonproprietary market model-like service-or a nonmarket model, like nonprofits and individual authors, and that do not benefit in any way from the increased appropriation. However, let us make here a much weaker assumption-that an increase in the rules of exclusion will not affect overall production. Let us assume that there will be exactly enough increased production by producers who rely on a proprietary model to offset the losses of production in the nonproprietary sectors.

It is easy to see why a policy shift from A to B would be regressive from the perspective of theories like Rawls's or Ackerman's. Under Rule A, let us say that in this state of affairs, State A, there are five online encyclopedias. One of them is peer produced and freely available for anyone to use. Rule B is passed. In the new State B, there are still five encyclopedias. It has become too expensive to maintain the free encyclopedia, however, and more profitable to run commercial online encyclopedias. A new commercial encyclopedia has entered the market in competition with the four commercial encyclopedias that existed in State A, and the free encyclopedia folded. From the perspective of the difference principle, we can assume that the change has resulted in a stable overall welfare in the Kaldor-Hicks sense. (That is, overall welfare has increased enough so that, even though some people may be worse off, those who have been made better off are sufficiently better off that they could, in principle, compensate everyone who is worse off enough to make everyone either better off or no worse off than they were before.) There are still five encyclopedias. However, now they all charge a subscription fee. The poorest members of society are worse off, even if we posit that total social welfare has remained unchanged. In State A, they had access for free to an encyclopedia. They could use the information (or the software utility, if the example were software) without having to give up any other sources of welfare. In State B, they must choose between the same amount of encyclopedia usage as they had before, and less of some other source of welfare, or the same welfare from other sources, and no encyclopedia. If we assume, contrary to theory and empirical evidence from the innovation economics literature, that the move to State B systematically and predictably improves the incentives and investments of the commercial producers, that would still by itself not justify the policy shift from the perspective of the difference principle. One would have to sustain a much stricter claim: that the marginal improvement in the quality of the encyclopedias, and a decline in price from the added market competition that was not felt by the commercial producers when they were competing with the free, peer-produced version, would still make the poorest better off, even though they now must pay for any level of encyclopedia access, than they were when they had four commercial competitors with their prior levels of investment operating in a competitive landscape of four commercial and one free encyclopedia.

From the perspective of Ackerman's theory of justice, the advantages of the networked information economy are clearer yet. Ackerman characterizes some of the basic prerequisites for participating in a market economy as access to a transactional framework, to basic information, and to an adequate educational endowment. To the extent that any of the basic utilities required to participate in an information economy at all are available without sensitivity to price-that is, free to anyone-they are made available in a form that is substantially insulated from the happenstance of initial wealth endowments. In this sense at least, the development of a networked information economy overcomes some of the structural components of continued poverty-lack of access to information about market opportunities for production and cheaper consumption, about the quality of goods, or lack of communications capacity to people or places where one can act productively. While Dworkin's theory does not provide a similarly clear locus for mapping the effect of the networked information economy on justice, there is some advantage, and no loss, from this perspective, in having more of the information economy function on a nonmarket basis. As long as one recognizes bad luck as a partial reason for poverty, then having information resources available for free use is one mechanism of moderating the effects of bad luck in endowment, and lowers the need to compensate for those effects insofar as they translate to lack of access to information resources. This added access results from voluntary communication by the producers and a respect for their willingness to communicate what they produced freely. While the benefits flow to individuals irrespective of whether their present state is due to luck or irresponsibility, it does not involve a forced redistribution from responsible individuals to irresponsible individuals.

From the perspective of liberal theories of justice, then, the emergence of the networked information economy is an unqualified improvement. Except under restrictive assumptions inconsistent with what we know as a matter of both theory and empirics about the economics of innovation and information production, the emergence of a substantial sector of information production and exchange that is based on social transactional frameworks, rather than on a proprietary exclusion business model, improves distribution in society. Its outputs are available freely to anyone, as basic inputs into their own actions-whether market-based or nonmarket-based. The facilities it produces improve the prospects of all who are connected to the Internet-whether they are seeking to use it as consumers or as producers. It softens some of the effects of resource inequality. It offers platforms for greater equality of opportunity to participate in market- and nonmarket-based enterprises. This characteristic is explored in much greater detail in the next segment of this chapter, but it is important to emphasize here that equality of opportunity to act in the face of unequal endowment is central to all liberal theories of justice. As a practical matter, these characteristics of the networked information economy make the widespread availability of Internet access a more salient objective of redistribution policy. They make policy debates, which are mostly discussed in today's political sphere in terms of innovation and growth, and sometimes in terms of freedom, also a matter of liberal justice.

Commons-Based Strategies for Human Welfare and Development

Chapter 9, section 2

Information-Embedded Goods and Tools, Information, and Knowledge

Chapter 9, section 3

Industrial Organization of HDI-Related Information Industries

Chapter 9, section 4

Toward Adopting Commons-Based Strategies for Development

Chapter 9, section 5

Commons-Based Research for Food and Medicines

Chapter 9, section 6

Commons-Based Strategies for Development: Conclusion

Chapter 9, section 7

Chapter 9: Notes

Chapter 9: Notes

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 9: Summary
Discuss Liberal Theories of Justice and the Networked Information Economy