Posted by: Lauren Proper
Free markets are generally accepted as providing the greatest opportunity for consumers of goods to obtain the best quality for the lowest prices. A free market economy is not without its flaws, however. The idealistic economic philosophy first propagated by Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” has proven more theoretically appealing than functional without regulation. Issues with a free market economy include the effects of greed on price fixing and harm to consumers, race-to-the-bottom incentives that decrease consumer safety and difficulty competing with well-established distributors of goods in ways that can create monopolies or oligopolies.
Free markets do not exist solely for goods. Today, information is traded in much the same way tangible goods are. Free market economies for information suffer from the same issues that afflict free market economies for tangible goods. Some people’s desire to commercialize and profit lead to restrictions which in turn harm consumers. In an information economy, the harm to consumers deprives them of access and disadvantages people who do not have access to a wealth of information.
Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler distinguishes economies for goods from economies for information in his book “The Wealth of Networks.” Whereas a traditional good (Benkler refers to them as “rival products”) is depleted with use, nonrival products can be used repeatedly without any degradation. Nonrival products, Benkler posits, become perhaps the primary goods of social import in advanced economies. The immeasurable social and cultural importance of increased access to these goods forms the basis for Benkler to advocate for open source. To illustrate his point, Benkler posted “The Wealth of Networks” online under a Creative Commons license to allow readers to edit, augment or comment upon his work as an example of the societal benefits of peer collaboration. Continue reading