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.