Yochai Benkler’s brief and approachable book takes issue with the founding premises of many of our institutions that humans are in general not to be trusted and that we need strong authority and incentives to keep us in line lest we run amok. He seeks to show us that our basic nature, though far from perfect, is far more cooperative and altruistic than is commonly thought.
Benkler makes his case using a range of detailed examples, many of which will be familiar to readers of other work of this nature. In fact, The Penguin and the Leviathan can be regarded as something of a synthesis of Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ and Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s ‘Practical Wisdom.’ In my opinion these are all better books in their own right, but the value of Benkler’s offering is that it puts together many of their disparate insights in a sustained and focused way. That this book is coming from a business/economics/technology background in itself makes this a worthwhile and encouraging contribution.
Benkler seems alive too to the darker side of cooperative behaviour, though this is not sufficiently developed in my view. Overall though, The Penguin and the Leviathan provides a measured, accessible and persuasive take on the age-old problem of how to design organisational systems that bring out the best in humanity. It’s a great, up-to-date starting place for anyone with an interest in this question.
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