Benkler's The Penguin and the Leviathan

Is the pendulum swinging to a new vision of what human beings are? For decades the standard narrative of the economics profession has been that a human being is homo economicus, a self-regarding, materialistic creature who is constantly trying to maximize his utility through rational calculation. We all know that this is a caricature, but in the “real world” of markets and politics, it seems functional enough to accept as true. After all, we all know people who are nasty, self-serving and acquisitive.

While everyone has been focused on this aging model, however, a new body of academic literature offering up a new paradigm has been building for the past twenty years or more. It hasn't quite won mainstream acceptance, at least among economists, politicians and the public. But Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler aspires to remedy this problem with his new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest. The book is an accessible and thorough overview of the literature of cooperation, as seen through the prism of economics, sociology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and other disciplines.

Scores of scientific studies and countless Internet-based examples are revealing that we humans aren't as irredeemably selfish and socially retrograde as economists make us out to be. In fact, science is telling us that humans appear to be hard-wired to cooperate within consensual social structures, rather than wage an endless competition of individuals against each other. Such findings have far-reaching implications for how public policy, law, regulation, business models and many other social structures should be designed – which is precisely Benkler's point in writing the book. We need to acknowledge our human capacities to work together collaboratively and to design appropriate institutions and policy systems to leverage our innate propensities.

Benkler's previous book, The Wealth of Networks, was an illuminating but dense and lengthy treatise on how digital networks are enabling “commons-based peer production” and markets that are more socially embedded and responsive. In many respects, that book, published by Yale University Press, is quite a contrast to The Penguin and the Leviathan, an anecdote-filled book published by Crown Business and aimed at a lay readership and businesspeople.

Benkler's migration from Harvard digital mandarin to business-oriented guru was apparently sparked when a colleague chided him that “density and academic writing norms are no less of a barrier [to public access] than copyright. They just exclude different people in different ways.” Chastened, Benkler set out to write a book that, while certainly no airport page-turner, is eminently readable and informative. It is not clotted with finely grained academic arguments and copious footnotes, yet neither does it feel as contrived as David Brooks' recent book surveying social science research. On the other hand, The Penguin has no bibliography or footnotes, which is a shame because there were many occasions in the book where interesting studies or books are cited, but there is no easy way to locate them.

Benkler's goal is not so much about debunking free-market ideology and its premises about human identity and behavior, than it is about summarizing and popularizing the new scientific findings about human cooperation. His examples span from the management cultures of Toyota and Southwest Airlines to the digital gift economies of GNU/Linux, Wikipedia and CouchSurfing. (The "penguin" in the title refers to the mascot/logo of GNU Linux, the free software operating system that Benkler regards as emblematic of the new modes of cooperation.)  As the feasibility of cooperation becomes so evident across a wide spectrum of venues – business, education, the Internet, social life – researchers in the social and behavioral sciences have gotten much more interested in figuring out how cooperation works on the ground. Is it genetics? Culture? Law and public policy? Business organization? Social norms?

The real answer is “all of the above.” Benkler starts by explaining how the evolutionary sciences are challenging Richard Dawkin's “selfish gene” narrative and the idea that natural selection only works at the level of individuals, and not groups. He quotes Harvard biology professor Martin Nowak, who has written, “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of evolution is its ability to generate cooperation in a competitive world. Thus, we might add 'natural cooperation' as a third fundamental principle of evolution beside mutation and natural selection.” (Nowak's recent book, Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, deserves a plug here as an exemplary hard-sciences account of how cooperation emerges naturally in biological contexts.)

Benkler moves on to discuss the psychological and social influences on cooperation; the ways in which communication enables the expression of empathy and solidarity; and the importance of social norms of fairness and trust in successful commons. The framing of fairness matters, too. For example, we accept unequal outcomes for a lottery or executive bonuses, but insist upon a stricter egalitarianism when it comes to waiting in line. There is no single, overarching thesis to The Penguin and the Leviathan. It's more of a picaresque tour through the diverse academic research on cooperation and the many archetypal systems of cooperation that we rely upon.

I was disappointed that Benkler invokes “the Leviathan” – the state-based, top-down systems of command and control, and coercion – mostly as a foil. Especially given his previous theorizing on the political implications of commons, I had hoped that, in invoking the Leviathan, he would attempt to probe the political dimensions of state power in this age of digital networks and cooperation.  Alas, not so much.  Perhaps in future editions the publisher will see fit to add a bibliographic essay or endnotes, and offer a Creative Commons-licensed digital version.

These are quibbles.  Unless you have a few months to pore over the sprawling literature on cooperation that has emerged over the past twenty years, you can't do better than to cruise through The Penguin and the Leviathan.  It's a pleasant, edifying read that briskly distills a complex body of science.  Let us hope that it will help make our political culture and economists more comfortable with the subversive idea that we humans are capable of some remarkable forms of cooperation.  Why not make the most of it?