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.

Overview

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

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

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


Robert Nozick - Anarchy, State and Utopia (amazon) or Anarchy, State and Utopia (wikipedia)

Nozick is famous for his Entitlement Theory, which contains three principles:

  • Transfer principle: Property acquired freely from others who in turn acquired the property in a just way is to be considered justly acquired.
  • Acquisition principle: Persons are entitled to property they initially acquired in a just way.
  • Rectification principle: Rectify violations of 1 or 2 by restoring property to its rightful owners. (Source)

Benkler’s observations and criticisms of the Entitlement Theory

  • The theory ignores the poor
  • Poverty explained solely as derived from a lack of responsibility
  • Highly resistant to claims of redistribution


Ronald Dworkin - Sovereign Virtue or Ronald Dworkin (wikipedia)

Dworkin's work combines luck and responsibility in an attempt to alleviate some of the shortcomings (i.e., impossibilities) of Rawls' theory. Dworkin's work does not reject the possibility of redistribution as Nozick's does. Basically, his framework for a just system uses an "auction plus insurance" mechanism to duplicate effect of Rawls' [quite impossible] "Veil of Innocence" using market

  • Step 1: Auction. The model starts with an initially equitable distribution of resources (described by Dworkin as an auction in which individuals use the initially distributed resources to bid for resources in the community.)
  • Step 2: Insurance. Because people differ in circumstances (i.e., luck), the initial distribution is supplemented with insurance. Everyone pays into a common pool, which is then used to help those with bad luck. (Source)

Benkler’s observations and criticisms

  • Less attractive from perspective of liberal theories focusing on personal autonomy because it ignores personal responsibility.
  • Good for proving a metric of “justness” which can be used to optimize redistribution.
  • Too difficult to measure the value of the insured-for issues – wealth, intelligence, health.


Structure

Structure refers to “causes for the inequality of an individual that are beyond his or her control, but are traceable to institutions, economic organizations, or social relationships that form a society’s transactional framework.


Bruce Ackerman - Social Justice in the Liberal State (amazon) or Social Justice in the Liberal State (wikipedia)

Instead of focusing solely on structural causes in inequality, Ackerman proposes reforms that layer structural solutions on top of a model including both responsibility and luck. Ackerman recognizes that one's luck (parental wealth, genetic endowments) combine with one's structurally-limited opportunities (educational opportunities and general transactional framework in one's life) to define a sphere of possibility. Structural reforms, according to Ackerman, must seek to resolve unluckiness-based inequities while still distinguishing between responsible parties to prevent incentivizing irresponsibility.

Ackermans' proposal includes all three of these elements: A government-funded personal endowment at birth that you can save or squander (and “suffer the consequential reduction in welfare.”) The key elements:

  • Structure: In combination with establishing a more open transactional framework that would allow anyone to transact with anyone else (another of Ackerman's proposals), this would be a societal institution accessible to all.
  • Luck: The funding early in life would not equalize poor children to rich, but it would eliminate many of the worst barriers created by a childhood of poverty.
  • Responsibility: The fund may be irresponsibly squandered. This means that the system will not help maintain the wealth of irresponsible parties.

Commons-Based Strategies for Human Welfare and Development

Information-Embedded Goods and Tools, Information, and Knowledge

Industrial Organization of HDI-Related Information Industries

Toward Adopting Commons-Based Strategies for Development

Software

Scientific Publication

Commons-Based Research for Food and Medicines

Food Security: Commons-Based Agricultural Innovation

Access to Medicines: Commons-Based Strategies for Biomedical Research

Commons-Based Strategies for Development: Conclusion

Sources

Sources cited in the chapter

Other relevant readings

Case Studies

Supporting examples

Jamaica Project

Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society is currently involved in a project with prisoners in Jamaica. One its website, the following information is given:

"Led by Berkman Faculty Co-Director Charles Nesson, the Jamaica Project was established in 1998 and has expanded with each successive year through a series of interconnected initiatives. The Project focuses on the problems caused by globalization, exploring the thesis that networks based on communication and exchange of social and intellectual capital can help in rehabilitation of developing countries hurt by globalization."

I had the opportunity to interact with some of the people involved in this project. And will share the information I gained from that session to demonstrate the fact that the internet can have a positive value for social justice.

The program is focused on prisons. According to those involved, the prison situation in Jamaica is less than ideal. There are problems with over-crowding as well as a lack of sanitation. There is huge animosity between the guards and the prisoners. As within any prison system, new social ordering rules are created. Many young men are in prison, often for drug-related crimes. It is difficult for these men to re-enter society and to get jobs, etc.

Why was Jamaica chosen? After all, there are poor prison conditions everywhere. According to Professor Charles Nesson, Jamaica was chosen for it's isolation as an island nation as well as for the fact that, even as a small nation, Jamaica has worldwide recognition. Professor Nesson cites the proliferation of reggae music as one example of this.

The project focuses on helping prisoners by allowing them to gain new skills and do different things for themselves. One early project was a radio station in the prison. This allowed information to be easily transferred between prisoners and outsiders such as their families. The program has also included utilizing computers to learn and create. The program has worked with musician Jah Cure who has been developing music while in prison.

While this project is still in its developing stages, it shows promise for allowing the internet to make a difference in the lives of many of these young men. It has not been able to provide a seamless integration for prisoners back into daily life, but hopes to allow the prisoners to collaborate and start businesses once released.

For additional information please visit the following links:

Technological Generativity

Jonathan Zittrain's paper, The Generative Internet argues that the ubiquitousness, accessibility, and multi-purpose adaptability of the Internet -- together taken as "generativity" -- are crucial characteristics of today's technical paradigm. Without generativity, computers would become analogous to hard-wired coffee pots capable of only one specific task. Internet would become highly application-specific and not adaptable to new uses. With generativity, on the other hand, "[t]he developed world now finds itself with a wildly generative information technology environment, the result of taking forks in its developmental path that avoided hardware dedicated to predetermined tasks, and that eclipsed network facilities operated by a single umbrella provider responsible both for connectivity and content" (Zittrain 17).

Technological generativity is one dimension of Benkler's networked information economy, and one which contributes substantially to the social justice arguments for migrating away from a centralized proprietary market system. Below are generative concepts applied to the liberal theories of justice detailed above.

Luck - Generativity is a concept that contemplates precisely the type of luck that Rawls' theory entails. We cannot say today who will produce the great innovations of tomorrow. It might be the country's biggest ISPs or software producers, or it might be a 13 year old boy. Anyone set to the task of designing the rules of technology behind a "veil of ignorance" -- i.e., not knowing who the innovators will be -- with the goal of maximizing technological progress and subsequent social welfare, will naturally come to a design which keeps open as many doors for innovation as possible. This is generativity.

Responsibility - In the social welfare context, Nozick and Dworkin both emphasize the importance of building in elements of personal responsibility to a social contract. Without consequences for irresponsible parties, the system would incentivize irresponsibility. According to these theorists, the more responsible one is, the better off one's situation will become. Similar principles apply to technology. If individuals shun the responsibility required of a generative net (security measures, identity protection, etc.), technology creators will have no choice but to migrate to less-generative but more secure platforms.

Structure - Inequities embedded in social structures limit social justice in ways that overlap with restrictions caused by structurally encoded limitations on the web. Both types of structural limitations may be avoided through systemic design choices. Ackerman suggests that creating "a more open and egalitarian transactional framework . . . 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 social behavior" (Benkler 305). The Internet itself is a perfect example of a transaction-facilitating framework in which people may communicate with each other, regardless of race, class, gender, or any other defining characteristic. The Internet should, according to generativity principles, preserve similar "communication" frameworks on a technological level. The packet routing structure of the Internet allows "smart" devices on the edges of the network to communicate through the "dumb" center of the net. Both types of structural limitations prevent communication and interaction from taking place, both on a social and technical level.

Counter-examples

Key Concepts