Shirky's Third Way

Here’s Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus, discussing differing views on human behaviour and how that affects political ideology:

Assumptions that people are selfish can become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating systems that provide lots of individual freedom to act but not a lot of public value or management of collective resources for the greater public good. Systems designed around assumptions of selfishness can also crowd out solutions that could arise when people communicate with one another and enter into agreements that they jointly monitor and enforce. Conversely, systems that assume people will act in ways that create public goods, and that give them opportunities and rewards for doing so, often let them work together better than neoclassical economics would predict.

I think this is as good a description as any as to why some people end up as small-c conservatives and others as small-s socialists. The latter is the view that I tend to, one that seems inherently more optimistic about human nature than conservatives or indeed libertarians would have us believe.

Shirky goes on to describe how neoclassical economics, which prizes the firm and enterprise as the most efficient form of collaboration, prevailed (in the 20th Century) over the socialist, state-led alternative. However, the rest of Cognitive Surplus goes on to describe models of co-ordination that are neither market-driven or state-sponsored. OpenSource projects like Linux and Apache and user-generated websites like Wikipedia are obvious examples. The Third Way is often used to describe a centrism, that combines elements of capitalism and socialism. Private companies as the best way to improve public services, and all the other ideas that defines the approach (and inspired the name ) of my alma mater, the Social Market Foundation. However, a not-for-profit, “commons” approach seems a much better definition of a Third Way – a genuinely different method of co-ordination, not just a split-the-difference compromise.

Moreover, this idea of community project building on a not-for-profit basis seems very close to David Cameron’s Big Society! I am still reading Cognitive Surplus so cannot comment on Shirky’s overall conclusions, but I suspect that Big Society-type alternatives to capitalism and command-and-control will be presented. The question is – Can we use our cognitive surplus to deliver essential services? OpenSource media? Definitely. Maybe even banking and transport. But hospitals?

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