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November 08, 2004

the commons and economic equality

To what extent would a strong defense of the "knowledge commons" or the "public domain" increase economic equality? Some libertarians are enthusiastic proponents of the commons, so there could be an interesting coalition of left-liberals plus libertarians for the public domain, if it turned out that free knowledge helps the poor. This could be a global coalition, since information that is free is free for everybody.

Today's population has a gigantic advantage over our predecessors. We are able to produce many times more real value per hour of work than ever before. The main reason is a set of discoveries and inventions bequeathed to us by human beings from the past. Since we did not achieve these advances ourselves, we ought to share their fruits. However, even though most of our wealth and income is a result of inherited knowledge, it is held by a small minority of the population. One percent of Americans own 40% of the nation's wealth; and the world's richest 200 individuals own $1 trillion worth of stuff, roughly the same as the poorest 500 million people put together (pdf).

Why do some people benefit from accumulated knowledge so much more than others? I see three explanations, which are not mutually exclusive:

1) To make money from knowledge, you must have it in your head. Thus education is crucial for wealth-generation in today's knowledge economy. In order to increase economic equality, we need to improve the education of less advantaged people--paying attention not only to their schools, but to their whole environments. This is very difficult to do. Money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
2) To make money from knowledge, you must own equipment or organizations that embody knowledge: factories, firms, computers. It doesn't even matter what you know, if you are lucky enough to inherit a substantial share of a profitable firm. To the extent that this is true, there is nothing especially new about the "knowledge economy." People still need real property that generates wealth for them--but now the best objects to own are computers and supply chains instead of cattle and acres of land.
3) To make money from knowledge, you must have effective access to it. You must be able to walk into a library or museum or log onto the Internet, find answers to your questions, and create new inventions or artistic expressions based on what you've found. To the extent that this is true, we need a very robust "public domain" consisting of free information. In order to "incentivize" new creativity, we must allow people to monopolize their own inventions for limited periods, so that they can profit from what they have made. But as quickly as economic efficiency permits, their ideas should become public.

If (3) is important, then the obstacles to equality include corporate efforts to extend copyright backwards, to patent business methods and software, and to block the use of legitimate public-domain works by shutting down networks for the sharing of files. Government secrecy is another problem, as is the patenting of government-financed research results. Still another problem is the poor condition and funding of libraries and museums. But there are also great opportunities, such as the Internet itself and open-source software.

The most radical libertarian/egalitarian program would involve: relaxing legal controls on intellectual property; abolishing all ownership and control of the broadcast spectrum and allowing people to share it freely with an Internet-style wireless communications system (Yochai Benkler's proposal); and relaxing or even abolishing professional monopolies. Instead of requiring people to attend medical school and hold licenses to practice medicine, we could create "distributed" systems for evaluating people who provided various forms and aspects of medical care.

[PS: Those interested in the defense of the commons should check out at least these two sources: Commons Blog, edited by Rick Emrich, and David Bollier's On the Commons.]

Posted by peterlevine at November 8, 2004 09:41 AM

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