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Laissez-faire (also known as capitalistic inclusionism or wikilibertarianism), on Wikipedia, is the doctrine that users should be free to make whatever contributions they choose (especially in non-Mainspace pages) as long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to contribute as they choose. It especially relates to contributions made to userspace and is the result of a confluence of guidelines such as Wikipedia:Don't worry about performance, Wikipedia:Editors matter, etc.
Basic economic foundational underpinnings
Freedom is a necessary condition for efficient production. In a free economy, each citizen is allowed to choose their occupation based on their own preferences, skills, and economic needs, permitting a more efficient division of labor than if jobs were assigned to individuals by a central authority. A free enterprise system allows for entrepreneurial activity in which participants may open new businesses on their own initiative; this allows for the rapid organization of efforts to meet demands as soon they are perceived by individuals, without delays caused by seeking approval of a new operation by the government. As Friedrich von Hayek once asked, "Is it really likely that a National Planning Officer would have a better judgement of 'the number of cars, the number of generators, and the quantities of frozen foods we are likely to require in, say, five years,' than Ford or General Motors etc., and, even more important, would it even be desirable that various companies in an industry all act on the same guess?"
To the extent that Wikipedia can be compared to or described as an economy, it falls into the category of a mixed economy. Wikipedia follows some free market principles in that editors are free to choose what articles to work on, and they may start new articles at will. It is a phenomenon whose manifestation in real world capitalist economies was succinctly described by Thomas Carl Rustici as, "We do what we do best and exchange for the rest." But on Wikipedia this freedom is curtailed by the submission of some articles to the community's judgment of what is notable and worthy of an investment of time and effort. This is contrary to the philosophy embraced by the U.S. and Japanese free enterprise systems – the first and second most successful national economies when ranked by GDP – in which high technology is frequently harnessed to produce seemingly frivolous products such as the tamagotchi. One could easily argue that the intellectual and monetary resources poured into the development of this toy could have been more usefully invested in curing cancer or teaching students advanced calculus. This argument ignores the fact that many possible benefits of such technological developments are not immediately obvious. For instance, young people fascinated with such toys may be inspired to learn more about electronics, seek careers in technology, etc. which will require them to learn subjects such as math that they otherwise might have had little interest in. Toys are a driver of research and development; as Angelic Layer notes, "Nowhere is the demand for new technology higher than in entertainment and no entertainment field is more advanced than The World of Toys." Moreover, empirical evidence suggests that countries such as Communist Russia and North Korea that limit freedom, censor creative work, and centrally decide which product lines to invest in, are ultimately less productive, not more.
As the Property and Environment Research Center and other free market think tanks are fond of pointing out, "Incentives matter," and economic experiments at institutions such as George Mason University have demonstrated that this principles applies no less to artificially constructed environments involving human participants than to macroeconomic situations. WP:EM indicates, "Unlike most other reference works, we don't pay people to write for us, and there are very few incentives, perks or privileges associated with contributing." In a free economy, however, people engage in activities based on renumeration they will receive; as Ayn Rand points out, "America's abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes." What, then, motivates users to contribute? Surely some seek to advance public awareness of organizations, causes, ideas, or facts they find interesting and important, which brings a kind of fulfillment unrelated to userpages. But WP:EM also notes that there is certain userpage content "only tangentially related to Wikipedia, if at all" with the potential to "make an editor happy, or strengthen Wikipedia's sense of community and shared enjoyment."
Principles of supply and demand indicate that as the price offered for a unit of labor increases, the number of units of that labor that the labor market will offer increases. That price does not necessarily have to be monetary, and indeed on Wikipedia, the compensation for editing labor always takes forms other than monetary. It stands to reason, assuming a reasonably elastic demand curve correctly indicating a connection between said content and participation in the project, that if we offer more opportunities for users to create and keep the personal content, then overall participation will increase.
Much as some Soviet citizens started black markets in the 1980s in response to unmet demands in the marketplace for imported blue jeans, rock-and-roll records, and home decor items, some users have begun opening shops for marketing signature and userpage content creation. Some in the wiki community advocate shutting these shops down, based on the idea that they contradict WP:NOT and WP:USER. Aside from the question of whether these pages technically violate policy, there is the larger question of whether policies against substantial "non-encyclopedic related material" are beneficial to begin with. Is this really the way to build a vibrant community and spur the creative, collaborative process necessary required for efficient content production? A sufficiently large economy can afford to invest surplus resources on luxuries to raise the general quality of life, as determined by the citizens themselves in the votes they cast via economic decisions. (In Wikipedia, the only difference is that the preferences are expressed through edits rather than dollars.) If we make the pie bigger – i.e. if we expand the overall base of contributions – we can afford to carve out a slice for creative userpage content.
A key point of contention in the debate of whether to expand the limits on allowable non-encyclopedic content in userpages is whether the net effect will be beneficial to the project, or harmful in that it will distract from article production. The latter view seems to regard Wikipedians as already being at the Ax point on the production possibilities frontier curve shown at right, at which allocating more factors of production to userpage content production will harm article production. In reality, we may be at point W, and it may not be possible to reach AX; our best bet may be to reach Z.
Specific proposals for harnessing wikientrepreneurialism
Under a radical version of wikientrepreneurialism, participants might be free to create and use their own software modifications on Wikipedia independently of the centralized MediaWiki development system in which modifications to be used on Wikipedia are approved from above and implemented by an understaffed group of developers. This could include plugins, scripts, as well as entirely new modules such as new communities whose link to the encyclopedia project is not immediately evident but would ultimately function synergistically with it. One theory is that if a community of political bloggers, for instance, formed via userpages, it might be possible to take advantage of that network to recruit participants for WikiProjects on political subjects, or locate people with particular expertise or interests. Even the chess championship type of pages might be a place to recruit people to help with chess-related articles. It could happen spontaneously as well, e.g., by people playing chess and citing openings which might then draw their interest to the underlying articles.
A basic principle of website design is that one wants to have sticky content, in that the site attracts people to keep coming back as well as spend long periods on the site and view multiple subpages. Wikipedia has done well at this as far as appealing to a certain demographic is concerned; many people are content coming here and surfing through the various parts of Wikipedia all day long; but that is still only a small portion of the overall English-speaking, Internet-using population and does not achieve significant market penetration into the blogging, gaming, social networking, and other non-wiki communities. Google has pursued a strategy of having their service fulfill many varied needs without requiring the user to leave Google. One can use webmail, search, chat, spreadsheets, and so on in one integrated service. They have chosen to tie together seemingly unrelated services rather than focusing exclusively on one specialty.
The stickiness fits in with Google's business strategy, which is to bring in revenue by displaying advertising to people. Our goals are different – rather than making money, we are "dedicated to encouraging the growth, development and distribution of free, multilingual content, and to providing the full content of these wiki-based projects to the public free of charge," as the Wikimedia main page puts it. That is a broadly worded goal, which allows us to add other elements (e.g. Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikinews) which fall into the category of what Wikipedia is not but contribute to our larger goal. Those new sites have given us our own kind of "stickiness" in that people can find definitions, browse original texts, etc. without leaving Wikimedia sites. And the stickiness through diversity of projects is probably beneficial to our own goals, as it means we can create a consistent user experience among projects, exercise control over the content, link from one to the other, etc. The merits of adding activities like social networking and blogging to Wikimedia are not as immediately obvious as those for adding services like Wiktionary, and it would probably mean a drastic shift in our philosophy and culture, which some people would not be happy with. But the Wikimedia mandate does not necessarily exclude those activities, and they could of themselves generate free content, in addition to the possibility of bringing in contributors. They might be a different type of contributor; some might be Wikipedia contributors secondarily, and interested in other activities primarily. That shouldn't be any more harmful than the fact that some people on Wiktionary are primarily Wikipedians and only go on Wiktionary when they want to transwiki something.
These ideas challenge one to take an even bigger-picture look at the Wikimedia mission statement:
|“||The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally. In collaboration with a network of chapters, the Foundation provides the essential infrastructure and an organizational framework for the support and development of multilingual wiki projects and other endeavors which serve this mission. The Foundation will make and keep useful information from its projects available on the Internet free of charge, in perpetuity.||”|
Can social networking, blogging, and so on fit into that picture, and if so, what is the best way to do it? A key question under this theory is, How does one decide when to stick to what they're good at, and when to expand into seemingly unrelated activities in order to get more users? Another example of the latter might be Answers.com, which started out just mirroring Wikipedia and similar reference sites and now has become a job search site, shopping network, etc. The fact that people (including some existing contributors) are spontaneously trying to use Wikipedia for social networking/blogging/web hosting suggests that those might be logical places to expand. The kind of people who like to blog, for instance, are content creators. So, they might also like to work on Wiki articles. If we draw people into our site for one activity, we might draw them into the other, just as Answers.com might draw customers for its job search service when they come there looking for a mirrored wiki article. As WP:EM notes, "our most valuable resource is neither money nor webspace, but Wikipedia's contributors." This viewpoint holds that drawing in editors is as important a strategic goal for us as drawing in advertising revenue is for the social networking sites.
The case of Esperanza and the shops
The deletion debate at Wikipedia:Miscellany for deletion/Wikipedia:Esperanza/Archive1 and Wikipedia:Miscellany for deletion/Wikipedia:Esperanza illustrates a conflict between more traditional Wikipedians and Esperanzists that is analogous to the mutual antagonism between businessmen and intellectuals described in Ludwig von Mises' The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. While we may reject the alleged cliquishness, arrogance and general worthlessness of this defunct mini-community, we cannot extinguish such communities without also harming some productive creation:
- The vain arrogance of the literati and Bohemian artists dismisses the activities of the businessmen as unintellectual moneymaking. The truth is that the entrepreneurs and promoters display more intellectual faculties and intuition than the average writer and painter. The inferiority of many self-styled intellectuals manifests itself precisely in the fact that they fail to recognize what capacity and reasoning power are required to operate successfully a business enterprise.
- The emergence of a numerous class of such frivolous intellectuals is one of the least welcome phenomena of the age of modern capitalism. Their obtrusive stir repels discriminating people. They are a nuisance. It would not directly harm anybody if something would be done to curb their bustle or, even better, to wipe out entirely their cliques and coteries.
- However, freedom is indivisible. Every attempt to restrict the freedom of the decadent troublesome literati and pseudo-artists would vest in the authorities the power to determine what is good and what is bad. It would socialize intellectual and artistic effort. It is questionable whether it would weed out the useless and objectionable persons; but it is certain that it would put insurmountable obstacles in the way of the creative genius. The powers that be do not like new ideas, new ways of thought and new styles of art. They are opposed to any kind of innovation. Their supremacy would result in strict regimentation; it would bring about stagnation and decay.
- The moral corruption, the licentiousness and the intellectual sterility of a class of lewd would-be authors and artists is the ransom mankind must pay lest the creative pioneers be prevented from accomplishing their work. Freedom must be granted to all, even to base people, lest the few who can use it for the benefit of mankind be hindered. The license which the shabby characters of the quartier Latin enjoyed was one of the conditions that made possible the ascendance of a few great writers, painters and sculptors. The first thing a genius needs is to breathe free air.
In the criticism of the shops at Wikipedia:Miscellany for deletion/User:Vintei/shop, the mainstream Wikipedians swap roles, this time taking on the role of intellectuals who criticize capitalism on materialistic grounds for producing allegedly low-quality signature and userpage artistry that appeals to the masses but contributes little of serious value, which was also foreshadowed by von Mises' work:
- Again there are grumblers who blame capitalism for what they call its mean materialism. They cannot help admitting that capitalism has the tendency to improve the material conditions of mankind. But, they say, it has diverted men from the higher and nobler pursuits. It feeds the bodies, but it starves the souls and the minds. It has brought about a decay of the arts. Gone are the days of the great poets, painters, sculptors and architects. Our age produces merely trash.
- The judgment about the merits of a work of art is entirely subjective. Some people praise what others disdain. There is no yardstick to measure the aesthetic worth of a poem or of a building. Those who are delighted by the cathedral of Chartres and the Meninas of Velasquez may think that those who remain unaffected by these marvels are boors. Many students are bored to death when the school forces them to read Hamlet. Only people who are endowed with a spark of the artistic mentality are fit to appreciate and to enjoy the work of an artist.
- Among those who make pretense to the appellation of educated men there is much hypocrisy. They put on an air of connoisseurship and feign enthusiasm for the art of the past and artists passed away long ago. They show no similar sympathy for the contemporary artist who still fights for recognition. Dissembled adoration for the Old Masters is with them a means to disparage and ridicule the new ones who deviate from traditional canons and create their own.
The political economy of Wikipedia
Although Wikipedia is nominally not a democracy in the sense that decisions are made by a process of discussion rather than by votes, the policymaking power does ultimately rest in the community. Any user may propose a new policy. It has already been established that wikicapitalism is needed for efficient creation and improvement of articles, but the need for independent, entrepreneurial initiation and guidance of production is equally as valid in the realm of internal policy debates which help form new consensuses, shaping the overarching political economy of Wikipedia. In accordance with this, opinion essays about Wikipedia-related topics are currently allowed in the Wikipedia and User namespaces, even if the views they espouse go against current Wikipedia policy and the views of the majority. Von Hayek's comments in The Road to Serfdom: "The conception that government should be guided by majority opinion makes sense only if that opinion is independent of government. The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed." As Milton Friedman points out, "History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom."
Wikipedia:Laissez-faire is not particularly objectionable, provided that there is the requirement for editors to be able to back their edits up with reason. In the absence of that requirement, aside from creating clutter, it seems to justify vandalism and trolling that, so long as vandals and trolls create new articles, there ought to be absolutely nothing wrong with their behavior.
The main argument against Wikipedia:Laissez-faire is that it either unnecessarily wastes Wikipedia resources or worse, outright encourages trolling and vandalism. It seems to totally ignore the problems of information asymmetry, the problem of natural monopolies, the existence of public goods, ignores the fact Wikipedia's goal is to create an encyclopedia and has limited funds, and therefore has no actual requirement that articles that are created either be backed by rational argument for why they ought to be included in Wikipedia. It justifies this by totally ignoring the insights of Psychology, Sociology, and Ecology on human behavior, based on the heterodox economics of the Austrian school and outdated classical liberal philosophy, which makes the ridiculous assumption of innate human rationality. For more on this, see Keynesianism, Social liberalism, and Group dynamics. Furthermore, in claiming Wikipedia cannot engage in central planning due to the arguments made by Hayek and Mises, it seems to assume Wikipedia is a quasi-government, a comparison that Mises and Hayek would've rejected themselves, since Wikimedia, being a private non-profit, non-government organization, is already subject to market forces that would push it in the appropriate direction.
Regarding asymmetry of information, because users have varying degrees of knowledge about particular articles, social clusters (colloquially referred to as "troll mobs") can gather around certain topics. The fact that conspiracy theorists and other people supporting fringe views will be more knowledgeable than the average person on their token issue, they may in fact be largely successful and this problem may be addressed through active oversight by administrators and expert editors who review articles. If Wikipedia is to be considered analogical to a government, then the existence of administrators and Wikiprojects which review articles for factual accuracy can be thought of as public goods.
On monopolism, because the success of a particular edit is dependent upon the amount of people supporting it, in general, the most contentious articles will be prone to such clusters which stand in the way of the individual and rational editor from making edits. In general, freedom is a good thing, but the exstence of marginal non-coercion (commonly referred to as negative liberty) is not particularly of any value if it is not sustainable and therefore leads to a gross reduction in the amount of opportunities (see positive liberty and A Theory of Justice by John Rawls) to make edits overall, for all editors. The establishment of a policy of non-coercion may encourage vandalism and trolling, such that it brings harm even to the individual editor who may be unable to make changes to a particular page because of such clusters. An open question is: How does laissez-faire address this? If two editors are, in fact, engaged in a dispute where they edit-war, which one is violating laissez-faire? Does laissez-faire apply even in the case of bad faith or hoaxes? It's important to point out that Wikipedia is not Anarchy and Wikipedia is not a battleground.
Aside from the issues of vandalism and trolling, however, there is the argument that it would waste resources. It is often said that people aren't donating money so that users can have fancy user pages. Estimates or hard figures on how much additional money is consumed or would be consumed, by loosening userpage restrictions have not been offered by critics, so it is admittedly possible that loose restrictions on userpages may have a minimal impact on Wikipedia's finances. Jimbo Wales himself has said that the Wikipedia website is one of the smallest things in Wikimedia's budget.
Other arguments are that allowing non-encyclopedia-related content will distract users from productive edits and that allowing such activities will draw in users who come primarily for social networking purposes and make few useful contributions. Empirical evidence for these assertions has not been cited; the only experimental evidence could have resulted from Wikipedia:Esperanza which was aborted before conclusive results could become apparent. Economic history suggests the opposite; the tendency has been for productive, creative individuals to migrate to where they will enjoy greater freedom, as witnessed by the brain drain of doctors and other skilled workers from East Germany to West Germany. Did it matter that some less productive workers were undoubtedly attracted to the West along with them? The overall effect of freedom on the economy was positive.
If the example of economies throughout history holds true, Wikipedia policies that hinder the free market's tendency to reward productive labor could lead to the secession of productive workers from the project. Thomas DiLorenzo's book The Real Lincoln theorizes that the origins of the American Civil War were not primarily slavery-related, but were related more to protectionist tariffs (such as the Morrill tariff); internal improvements that disproportionately benefited the north but were paid for with federal funds; and a general shift of power from the states and the people to the federal level, which southerners were not able to reverse through the political process. It is hard not to see the parallels between (1) these federal policies' detrimental effect on Southern wealth, which led them to secede to form the Confederate States of America, and (2) the current userpage policies' detrimental effect on the reward system that was evolving at Wikipedia (in which users were compensated for their labor with the ability to socially network, keep some non-encyclopedic content on their own page, etc.), which led the affected users to leave the encyclopedia. Even attempts to offer recognition to users in the form of a "wiki-doctorate" have been suppressed by the community. We have seen the more wikilibertarian-minded users attempt to shape policy in a more free market-oriented way through Village Pump discussions, deletion debates, etc. More and more, it is becoming obvious that they are on the losing side of the policymaking "consensus." What will happen when they despair of trying to change the consensus?
The exodus of many productive Wikipedia users in the face of denial of the rightful rewards for their labor which the free market would have provided may be familiar to those who have read Atlas Shrugged. In that novel, the workers whose efforts were needed to keep the economy going began to withdraw from the socialist system to a haven known as Galt's Gulch, where a pure capitalist economy thrived. After their departure, the socialist economy collapsed. It is worth asking, What happened to all these users who mysteriously vanished? Where did they go? And what will happen to Wikipedia if many more of them leave?
In conclusion, there seems to be a dearth of direct empirical evidence to inform public policymaking in reference to these matters, although the theoretical and practical evidence in real world applications (not to mention Ayn Rand's novels) argues in favor of laissez faire. In making policy decisions on WP:USERPAGE revisions, a question arises as to whether Wikipedians should base their votes on conjecture and "what-if" scenarios as to what will happen if laissez-faire is adopted, or whether hard proof of the net harmfulness of the proscribed content should be required. On Wikipedia, as in a democratic society, users can use whatever basis they want for making decisions on public policy – even if those bases consist primarily on the unproven negative consequences of freedom which may well be counterbalanced by the existence of unintended consequences of restrictive regulations. It is a phenomenon familiar to any who have witnessed the erosion of capitalistic systems in favor of social democracy and other mixed economic systems which have come to dominate most of the world today.
- von Hayek, Friedrich (1978). New Studies in Philosophy Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas.
- Angelic Layer Vol. 1 by CLAMP
- Roberts, Russell (2006). Incentives Matter.
- Wikiquote:Ayn Rand#Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
- Wikipedia:Miscellany for deletion/User:Vintei/shop
- von Mises, Ludwig (1956). The Anticapitalistic Mentality.
- von Mises, Ludwig (1956). The Anticapitalistic Mentality.
- von Hayek, Friedrich (1944). The Road to Serfdom.
- Friedman, Milton (1962). Capitalism and Freedom.