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Magazines > Searcher > May 2011
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Vol. 19 No. 4 — May 2011
Voluntary Perils Ahead?
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Adam Smith wrote two major books. Most economic scholars know of the famous The Wealth of Nations (1776), but much less famous though perhaps even more important to the author was The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

In the more famous publication, Smith propounded his famous “invisible hand” theory in the context of protecting a national economy:

As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it (Book 4, Chapter 2).

However, my favorite example of how those invisible hands do their necessary work came from an anecdote I read once about a French socialist thinker — hardly a natural advocate for capitalism. The Frenchman was standing at his window early on a Friday evening looking out at the busy streets of Paris. Suddenly he was struck by a panicked thought. He realized that no organized governmental program had been set up to ensure that the citizens of Paris would be fed. No legislation or regulations were in place to protect Parisians from hunger, and now all the politicians and leaders of the city were leaving town for the weekend. Mon dieu! Quelle catastrophe! But then he realized — with a somewhat grudging tip of his beret to capitalism, I imagine — that no carefully crafted program was necessary. Farmers and herdsmen in the provinces had a vast supply of provender, but they needed and wanted cash. Parisians had a lot of cash and wanted a good dinner. Problem solved. Supply would seek demand, and demand would find supply. Need and greed would negotiate and come to an equitable solution for all and, in the process, a good result for humanity would emerge with no moralizing or nagging required.

Smith’s other book, however, focused on altruism, on people doing good deeds for their fellow man. The book began:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.

Now that seems more the way the internet and the web have gone. And in a world where no one knows you’re a dog, you may not even get the pleasure of seeing user satisfaction.

Of course, the invisible hand is very visible on the web in the form of hands snatching at and clutching revenue opportunities. But the “all information wants to be free” doctrine still has strong defenders. Even when payment is imposed, it’s often as a last resort and at a very low price point. With so much good free information, paywall providers suffer a persistent competitive disadvantage.

But will this Nirvana last? Is the voluntary impulse behind so many excellent sites just a passing fad? Will Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales wake up one morning musing on how much nicer it might be to live like the Prince of Wales? Even if he never loses his altruistic character, what if he comes to realize that he could save the whales if he had the wealth of a Bill Gates? Rumors have circulated that some of Wikipedia’s host of volunteers have started to flag. Will they last out the decade? Will they raise their young to take their place in the endless bucket brigade of data gathering?

And what would happen to humanity if the volunteering ever dried up? Frankly, the wide reliance on the give-away sources has swept many of the pay-me sources into oblivion. Who would step up if the good guys drifted away?

Information professionals, I expect. Librarians, I guess. We couldn’t let the ship of human knowledge founder with so much of humanity depending on it. Some of the rescue would involve expanding the outreach of the pay services we license to more and more people. Some would involve us building our own armies of volunteers. Some would involve finding “Net-respectable” ways of gathering revenue without sticking the user with the bill.

Something to think about.
— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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