Law, policy, and cooperation

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Citation: Yochai Benkler (2009) Law, policy, and cooperation. Government and Markets: Toward A New Theory of Regulation (RSS)

Tagged: political science (RSS), law (RSS), cooperation (RSS)


Benkler suggests that cooperation, and a growth of collaboration projects online in particular, has created a series of behaviors or phenomena that traditional "homo economicus" models of human behavior struggle to explain. He supports this claim with several anecdotes that include both Toyota use of TQM and empowerment of workers through means that depart from the traditional "rational" Fordist model and Wikipedia which represents a very different type of cooperation. Benkler defines cooperation very broadly as behavior that contributors to the attainment of the goals of others in the system. Although cooperation is these goals need not be positive (e.g., a suicide bomber can be seen as very cooperative)

Benkler breaks down cooperation into five distinct types of behaviors that include (a) altruism (in a pure sense), (b) committed mutualism, (c) collective efficacy, (d) heuristic reciprocity, (e) strategic mutualism.

Most of the article is an extended literature review of research on cooperation that pulls from a series of different literatures that include, in particular, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, social psychology, organizational sociology, anthropology, political science, online collaboration, and software design. He builds particular on the work of Bowles and Ginitis, Boyd and Richerson, Kahneman and Tversky, Deci and Ryan and Ostrom.

The core of the article and the major theoretical contribution is in arguing for a series of 13 "design levers".

The first (1) is communication which he treats as separate from the rest. He sites a literature on communiation in social dilemnas/games.

The first set of levers are connected to intrinsic motivation. Two levers are (2) humanization and (3) solidarity which together have shown that small symbolic issues can have a big effect on collaboration but might create barriers with those outside a group. As a design lever, it includes mechanisms that allow people to recognize the humanity of their counteprarts. Additionally, he cites (4) fairness and trust which he implies that people are driven by outcomes which they feel are fair. Benkler suggests that system designers should show who is cooperating or not by breaking down cooperation action into observable chunks.

Benkler further suggests that (6) norms (which can be both intrinsic and extrinsic) but which we can think of as clarifying what is expected from whom and what counts as defection or cooperation through a set of shared values. Finally, Benkler suggests that people are internally driven by (7) efficacy in that people will be more likely to contribute to projects they feel are likely to be effective.

The remaining levers are extrinsic. These includes (8) punishment/reward which suggest that the ability to punish non-collaborators may help increase cooperation. (9) Transparency or reputation suggests that cooperation platforms will succeed when they observe what others are doing which would be prerequisite to punishing bad actors, for example.

The leve of (10) costs suggests that if the costs (especially transaction costs) are lower, there will be more contribution. (11) Exit and entry drills down and suggests that the cost of entry or exit to the system will play an important role in determining who is inside or outside of a system and will play an important role in framing work.

Finally, Benkler cites the literature on (12) crowding out which shows that there may be important trade-offs between these levels and that incresaing some mechanisms. Finally, he suggest an important lever may be (13) leadership and asymetric contribution which does not reflect management in the traditional sense but rather different types and intensity of contributions.

The final part of the literature provides a set of example. Most of these examples are connected to law and issues of common pool resources (e.g., Ostrom) and, in particular, try to tie the design levers to the other chapters on law and policy published in the same volume.