Consent: A paradigm for challenging monopoly in the 21st century.

YouTube, Kickstarter, Skillshare and other flagship projects of 21st century entrepreneurship show the power of choice and variety.

Many artists opt for Vimeo’s curated video lists over YouTube’s mass appeal. Powerful tools like wikipedia are used for specialized variety: whether for science, video games, or even the television show LOST. Where would these projects be if we had a single, protected monopoly for digital video sharing or encyclopedias?

The power of the projects is based on consent. People are free to pursue alternatives – and they are free to build alternatives of their own.

Wikipedia and YouTube are platforms for community. People are free to find others with shared interests, and to enjoy the rich diversity of the world.

But people must consent to take part in these projects. The creativity behind these projects — and true community itself — cannot be coerced.

Consent and variety restrains the abuses of monopoly – it keeps our institutions in line. Indeed, these projects are the expression of an alternative to the monopoly paradigm, innovators moved into these areas and changed them because people were free to challenge them. Encyclopedia Britannica was not a protected monopoly — and we are better off for it.

People were free to leave, to stop purchasing some services and find something new: to revoke their consent. Entrepreneurs were free to build alternatives.

21st century entrepreneurship has shown the power of a paradigm of consent: free entry, free human association, wide spread collaboration, and democratizing the tools for creation, whether in media, or teaching, or art.

This same spirit of openness and change must be extended to the areas which remain monopolized.

Imagining a world where our biggest monopolies are challenged can be difficult, because we begin to take them for granted. They are entrenched, and a world beyond them seems impossible. Our biases work against us, and we must overcome them.

It’s useful to imagine all human organizations – clubs, businesses, governments – as all part of the same category: ‘firms’. The word ‘firm’ is usually reserved for businesses, but the guiding principle for a business or government or charity is basically the same — people organizing together to get things done. These are firms: people coming together to accomplish things.

We want law that protects human rights and helps people cooperate, so we want to form a good ‘governance firm.’ We want to help the homeless so we form a ‘charity firm.’ We want to make a million bucks, so we form a start-up ‘business firm.’

While we may have explicit ‘shares’ in a business, we all have social shares in the patchwork of firms that fill our lives. These firms come in a huge variety. Some let us vote for CEOS and policies (or politicians and programs). Others leave many decisions to experts or appointed boards. Most are somewhere in-between.

Different situations call for different firms, and just as a giant corporation is not the ideal solution to all business challenges, a giant nation-state with one-size-fits-all electoral politics, or a one-size-fits-all legal system, or a one-size-fits-all education may not be either. We want consent and variety in our firms.

All of our firms must be kept in line. We have the power to easily exit some, like walking away from Apple and becoming a PC customer. Others are very costly to exit, like your local cable company firm, or the city-firm called New York, or the massive federalist-firm called the USA. Others are even impossible to exit, like the governance-firm called North Korea.

We want a world full of firms that create lots of value for their members: whether this is a great ‘social-club firm’ like a cool bar, an innovative ‘business firm’ like Vimeo, or a just and humane ‘governance firm’. Firms create value by providing environments for human living and development, as well as products for people to enjoy.

Thinking of all these organizations as firms helps strip away ideology and partisanship from the debate as to how to build a better world. We can refocus on what works: what firms and models bring value and meaning into the lives of its members?

Would you live in a city operated by your favorite charity? Would you live in a country operated by Apple? Would you go to a social club started by Twitter? Would you work in a business run by North Korea? Would you go to a school run by Google?

Using our new frame, Denmark looks like a productive and humane, but exclusive country-club firm, where Danes take care of Danes with generous subsidiary organizations like social safety nets. North Korea looks like an abusive monopoly that hems in its customers and creates little value for those within.

Successful shopping malls or hotels look like tiny, efficient nations with rules and public services all their own (think of an elevator like a vertical subway!). Some cutting-edge businesses bring social-service environments with gyms, free lectures, healthy food choices, and sub-communities to enhance the lifestyle of their members.

Most firms are in-between. Some governance-firms provide their customers/members with a legal system that protects free speech well but may not protect property. Others do a great job building parks or roads for their members. Some, looking tragically like an unaccountable Hollywood Villain-firm, do neither.

Thinking of all our organizations as firms helps open our eyes to a world of possibility. What can we borrow from innovative business-firms to bring into governance-firms? If we worry about monopolies in markets, should we worry about monopolies in law and community? Can cities (‘urban firms’) be run like a business? Can schools be run like a fun social club? Can social clubs be run like a good school?

Only by clearing the way for radical social entrepreneurs, can we discover what works. Only through creativity and innovation in every area of human life can we challenge monopolies and build a better world for all.

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