January 17, 2010

The Value of Nothing

From what I’ve read of Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist and The Economist, capitalism seems like a reasonable way to make the world a better place, given its assumptions of human nature. In particular, America’s brand of capitalism, which tries to lower the barriers to getting a job or starting a business as much as possible, seems compatible with notions of liberty and democracy.

I just finished reading The Value of Nothing, which provides a fascinating counterpoint to all of this. Its author, Raj Patel, doesn’t hate markets—he just wants to pluck from them “the overriding hunger for expansion and profit that has brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe”. He also believes that what needs to be plucked from us is “the belief that markets are the only way to value our world”.

This last quote is something that resonates with me. Some of today’s most prolific companies rely on what I find to be odd business models: they make the money they need to survive as a fortuitous “side effect” that is relatively independent of their utility to the vast majority of their constituents. Firefox, for instance, relies on a sharing economy—open-source, community-driven development—to build a product that is mostly financed through something that few people are even aware of: the ads that a tiny percentage of users click on after performing Google searches at the upper-right hand corner of their browser.

These sorts of tactics strike me as clever “hacks” to capitalism. Obviously creating a browser like Firefox and making the Web a better place is something a lot of people value—yet this value isn’t really captured by the market.

The Value of Nothing is an exploration of alternative ways of valuing ourselves and our world, from Free Software to Food Sovereignty. Coincidentally or not, many characteristics of these alternatives—they are all transparent, participatory, and de-centralized—happen to share a lot in common with what makes the Web better.

© Atul Varma 2020