Can the Internet Bring the Beginning of the End of Selfishness?

A new book from Yochai Benkler, one of the preeminent philosophers of the Internet, explores what compels people to cooperate


Wikipedia presents a basic economic puzzle: why do tens of thousands of users contribute their time and expertise for no financial compensation and little to no outside recognition?  Altruism? Community? Boredom? As part of The Atlantic's celebration of 10 years of the collaborative encyclopedia last January, Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, suggested that the "biggest gift Wikipedia has given us" is "a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes."

Benkler had described and classified the possible motivations driving Wikipedians in his 2006 tome The Wealth of Networks, in which he analyzed the Internet's impact on the economics of information. In his new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, Benkler builds on the lessons of Wikipedia to explain why humans cooperate, and to debunk the notion that we are compelled singularly by mere selfishness. The book is, in his terminology, a response to Wikipedia's greatest gift. In taking aim at selfishness, Benkler puts in his crosshairs a fundamental tenet of modern economics, and this, ultimately, is what lends the book its relevance and gravity.

In The Wealth of Networks, Benkler argued that we had shifted from an "industrial" information economy to a "networked" one, in which a new model of distributed, collaborative production played a major role. He dubbed this phenomenon "commons-based peer production" -- which itself should make clear the book's academic bent -- and argued persuasively that it not only mattered, but was a positive development for the world. There had been credible academic work on the economics of open-source software, which presents a similar motivational puzzle, but Benkler expanded beyond software to include not just Wikipedia, but blogs, online forums, and all manner of information products. His book set a new bar in Internet scholarship with its impressive combination of breadth and rigor, and insisted credibly that internet idealism was not synonymous with naiveté.

Where The Wealth of Networks offered an in-depth look at how collaborative production was possible online, Benkler's new book examines how similar mechanisms pervade all manner of cooperation. In particular, The Penguin and the Leviathan seeks to dismantle the pervasive assumption that humans are motivated primarily by narrow self-interest. This is a seductive axiom, from standard economic analysis to fields like public-choice theory and game theory. It is the justification for both government authority ("the Leviathan") and free markets ("the Invisible Hand"). Benkler suggests that a third organizational model is not only possible, but has already been demonstrated in countless arenas, online and off. That model, based on a broader understanding of human motivation, he dubs "the Penguin", after Tux, the mascot for the open-source operating system Linux.

The meat of the book is effectively a literature review on cooperation, drawing from a diverse set of disciplines including biology, psychology, neuroscience, economics, and more. Benkler begins with a quick tour of the past few decades in evolutionary biology, which serves to establish the fact that cooperation is not particularly surprising from an evolutionary standpoint. Yet, he urges readers not to get bogged down with evolutionary arguments, stressing the "need to understand the limits of the biology of cooperation." He is similarly cautious with respect to neuroscience, writing, "Just as with evolutionary theory, brain biology applied to most questions of morality and behavior provides little in the way of concrete answers about how to improve cooperation in actual, functioning social systems."

Having established the broad plausibility of cooperation at a biological level, Benkler is able to focus the bulk of his efforts on a mixture of psychology, experimental economics, and business case-studies to discover the mechanisms by which cooperation occurs. Some of these, such as fairness, group identity, and morality, will be familiar to readers of psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt. Others, such as frequent, frictionless communication, are a reminder of why the internet is so well-suited to collaborative enterprises. Among the most fascinating areas of study is the interplay between cooperation and traditional incentives, particularly the conclusion that offering monetary rewards can "crowd out" cooperation in certain contexts, for example, blood donations. As Benkler explains it, offering payment "frames the interaction as business, signaling to us that it's therefore okay to be selfish."

The final chapter isolates what Benkler calls "design levers," guidelines for motivating people to cooperate that entrepreneurs, developers, planners, and managers should all find quite useful. Beyond this advice for practitioners, Benkler concludes with the "larger truth" he has aimed to convey: that we are not universally selfish, and that "cooperation trumps self-interest...far more consistently than we've long thought."

While most readers should be amenable to this conclusion, it is hard to overstate the extent to which it clashes with economic dogma. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chastised his profession in a 2009 essay for "mistaking beauty for truth," claiming that economists had "turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality." This vision of rationality assumes the very narrow version of selfish motivation that Benkler deflates, and yet it continues to be central to the practice of economics. Indeed, as Australian economist and blogger John Quiggin has detailed, it undergirds modern macroeconomics models. Of course, Benkler is not alone in challenging that assumption. That is the basic premise behind the rise of behavioral economics, which has gained traction in popular culture through the work of economists like Dan Ariely. Benkler's work differs in two key ways. The first is that much of behavioral economics, rather than dismissing selfishness as a motivator, focuses on the idea of "bounded rationality," or how we set out to be selfish but fail to do it well.

The second is Benkler's ambition. Whereas much of the popular work in behavioral economics is aimed at helping readers better understand and improve their own individual decision-making, Benkler's focus is squarely at the systems level. Moreover, his framing of the Penguin model as an alternative to the Leviathan or Invisible Hand suggests applicability to society at large. After tracing macroeconomic history from pre-nineteenth century European monarchies through the industrial revolution, the New Deal, and the Washington Consensus, Benkler writes, "If neither the command-control systems dictated by the Leviathan nor the Invisible Hand of the free market can effectively govern society, where shall we turn? Can the Penguin deliver us more robust, working social and economic systems that break us out of this vicious cycle? I believe that he can." This is what makes The Penguin and the Leviathan more interesting than broadly similar works.

It is also what ultimately makes it less satisfying. Benkler's guidelines are useful at the micro level, but they are not far enough along to provide much guidance at the macro level. Whatever the merits of the Washington Consensus, it is an actionable macroeconomic agenda in a way The Penguin simply is not. This is not a criticism of Benkler himself, as he has done as much as anyone to push forward these lines of inquiry. But, given his framing, one cannot help but feel frustrated knowing that universal selfishness is both empirically wrong and yet necessarily at the heart of how we make decisions about economic policy.

As Churchill said of democracy, modern economics is the worst method for understanding the economy, except all the other forms that have been tried. That is, despite the constant criticism the discipline faces, particularly in light of the recent financial crisis, it remains more useful than any alternative. Herein lies the challenge, as Benkler clearly understands. He himself wrote in The Wealth of Networks, "Much of economics achieves analytic tractability by adopting a very simple model of human motivation...While simplistic, this highly tractable model of human motivation has enabled policy prescriptions that have proven far more productive than prescriptions that depended on other models of human motivation." The task of translating Benkler's "design levers" into a formal economic model is no less daunting than it is necessary.

The highly visible success of collaborative projects online has made the importance of non-selfish motivation hard to ignore. Pushing economics to acknowledge a conception of human motivation beyond rational self-interest is still akin to pushing a boulder uphill, but the Internet has at least lowered the gradient. Benkler's work is both a formidable refutation of the assumption of narrow selfishness and a useful guide to building successful cooperative projects. And while the false assumption of selfish rationality will for now continue to guide the formal modeling of the macroeconomy, The Penguin and the Leviathan equips readers to begin changing the public conversation on the question of how humans work together. It is comforting to be reminded that most of us are not fundamentally selfish. It is long past time that our institutions in business and government realized as much.

Image: Joi/Flickr.