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Towards a public policy in support of a social sharing economy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th September 2011


Excerpted from Derek Wall:

“Generally economic activity is conceptualized as either market based or state controlled. If capitalism is criticised the only alternative that is normally cited is that of a planned centralized economy. The experience of the Soviet Union suggests that the alternative to capitalism is bureaucratic, stifles personal freedom and is hugely inefficient. Command economies generally have a poor environmental record, although Cuba has been cited as having achieved sustainable development by the WWF (2).

However the growth of the world wide web, developed for no personal gain by such figures as Tim Berners-Lee has led to what the Economist has termed ‘an intriguing alternative’. Benkler (2006) has developed a sophisticated analysis of what he terms ‘social sharing’. We live in an increasingly knowledge/culture based economy and such an economy is increasingly dominated by non market based production. The development of free or open source software is one example, along with the operating system Linux.

Yochai Benkler’s contention that social sharing provides an economic alternative to both markets and the state sounds both novel and obscure (Economics focus, February 5th). Yet the principle of “usufruct”, which allows resources to be used by any individual provided he or she leaves them in at least as good a state as they were given, can be found in ancient Roman law. Commons regimes (where local communities share the use of common land through rationing, so replenishing their resources without eroding them) are found throughout history and across four continents. Such sharing provides a way of restoring economics back to its original promise as a science that finds ways of matching scarce resources with unlimited human wants. In other words, while there may be no such thing as a free lunch, you can use my crockery as long as you wash and dry. (Economist 17th Feb, 2005)

Social sharing has an important role in providing access to physical consumer goods. Benkler notes the importance of car clubs as a way of improving access to transport through sharing. Such social sharing could be used to improved access to a range of consumer goods that are only used on occasion while reducing resource use.

I am personally skeptical that markets can ever work equitably or efficiently, however a line of thinkers drawing on Polanyi have suggested that markets can be embedded in local communities and made to work for rather than against human prosperity.

Equally Socialism can be based on worker participation rather than central control. Democratising economic control has a number of benefits. Already one of Britain’s most successful businesses is based on employee ownership, the John Lewis group. The concept of mutuals and the theme of open source/social sharing/commons suggest that interesting and effective forms of economic regulation that move us beyond capitalism and traditional command economies can be conceptualised.”

[edit] SOCIAL SHARING: AND POLICY

“Moving to an economy based on social sharing rather than conventional market or governmental action has a huge number of implications. Government would increasingly act to roll back both the state and the market. While I am optimistic that social sharing could be extended over a whole economy, the role of social sharing in the form of FOSS is already part of mainstream thought. Social sharing will not raise revenue for government or the private sector but has huge potential for cost reduction. In an increasingly information orientated economy, the decommodifiction of knowledge has the potential to raise individual prosperity, reduce dependency on the formal market economy and to cut costs for all.

There are some obvious gains for government from quite modest changes. Free software has a strong track record, already governments across the planet are using it to cut tax bills. Patent reform could make it much cheaper to source pharmaceuticals, which would drastically reduced NHS bills. Open source principles would make it cheaper to research and develop new medical technology.

Social sharing will not create work but as one wag once argue if work was that good the rich would keep it all to themselves! Work should be meaningful and provide a means to gain access to all the goods and services individuals need. Low or no cost access to resources would mean that individuals would be less dependent on the formal economy. Work sharing and down sizing would become increasingly attractive as practical alternatives. In short, rather than a growth in employment, revenue and profit, social sharing would provide greater access to the resources that individuals need, greater prosperity with less conventional economic growth.

An economy beyond both capitalism and top down planning by central government, is possible, however the implications are vast. An economy cannot be designed as a minutely imagined utopia, Hegal famously argued we cannot over leap our age (Ware 1999: 8). For example, who would have imagined a market economy before the market or capitalism based on modern finance, several centuries ago?

My task here is to indicate that it is possible to think outside the boxes (capitalism or central planning), describing how an alternative economic system would function in detail is something beyond one essay from one author. The alternative put forward here is participatory so a blueprint would challenge its very nature. Merely putting commons/social sharing on the map of policy makers would be an achievement, this form of economic regulation is usually unrecognised by economists and politicians. It provides to my mind the germ of a solution to the dilemma of sustainable development, it must be encouraged to blossom.

My analysis may appear radical, in fact compared to the expansionary logic of capitalism it is rather modest.”

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