Neoliberalism and Wikipedia


I’ve been reading The Road from Mont Pèlerin, by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, and thought I’d share an early reaction.

In the volume’s closing essay, Mirowski takes aim at Wikipedia and its founder, Jimmy Wales, who ‘claims that he got the idea for the site from his reading of Friedrich Hayek’s famous essay on “The Use of Knowledge in Society“, the ur-text of the Mont Pèlerin thought collective.’

After a section discussing Wikipedia’s business model, its relationship with Google and the ‘fetid quality’ of its entries, Mirowski concludes with lessons learnt:

First and foremost, neoliberalism masquerades as a radically populist philosophy, which begins with a set of philosophical theses about knowledge and its relationship to society.

It seems to be a radical levelling philosophy, denigrating expertise and elite pretensions to hard-won knowledge, instead praising the “wisdom of crowds”. It appeals to the vanity of every self-absorbed narcissist, who would be glad to ridicule intellectuals as “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.”

In Hayekian language, it elevates a “cosmos” – a supposed spontaneous order that no one has intentionally designed or structured – over a “taxis” – rationally constructed orders designed to achieve intentional ends.

Whatever it says about neoliberalism, this seems to me a mistaken analysis of Wikipedia.

Mirowski takes Wales and other Hayekians at their (dubious) word: suggesting that every time we aggregate the distributed, micro-level knowledge of individual agents, rather than consult a centralised ‘body of suitably chosen experts’, we vindicate capitalism and its price signals.

But Wikipedia scarcely relies on its contributors’ specific knowledge of the ‘local conditions and special circumstances’ of time and place, which Hayek considered ‘unorganized knowledge’, and which he thought was best coordinated through market prices.

Rather, Wikipedia works – and it does, superbly well – because of the statistical virtues of repeated measurement. As in information processing and telecoms, for large sample sizes (the masses of ordinary people who contribute to Wikipedia) the signal-to-noise ratio becomes very large.

In reality, Wikipedia provides as little support for a market economy (or the Austrian-libertarian worldview) as does Elinor Ostrom’s work on how people coordinate to manage common-pool resources (water, fishing rights etc) and avoid the tragedy of the commons.

But Mirowski goes along with Wales in believing that Wikipedia tells us something about the comparative worth of centralized vs distributed economic calculation. As such, he can only salvage his political position by pretending that Wikipedia does a poor job as an encyclopedia:

I cannot resist highlighting the irony that Wikipedia, purported poster child of neoliberalism, cannot even manage to get its own internal entry of neoliberalism straight. But that irony is achieved at too low a price: after all, Wikipedia can’t manage to get much of anything straight for very long (unless it is so arcane and dull that no precocious 12-year old feels tempted to “edit” the entry).

What it does manage to do is capture what passes for common knowledge of the median participant on the Internet at some specific point in time. The conviction that the truth emerges from random interactions of variously challenged participants in the precincts of Wiki-world (sometimes retailed in the popular press as “the wisdom of crowds”) only holds water if we are allowed great latitude in the definition of truth.

Sure, maybe if you consult the entries for Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush. But as a general description this is silly and unfair. Perhaps all the high-quality stuff falls under ‘arcane and dull’.


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5 Responses to “Neoliberalism and Wikipedia”

  1. Dan Says:

    The ultimate irony, of course, is where Mirowski’s students will turn to as the first port of call for beginning their own research.

  2. Greg Ransom Says:

    Mirowski begins to wear a tin hat ….

  3. Gregory Kohs Says:

    What of the fact that Jimmy Wales as “founder” of Wikipedia is a lie? A deliberate and orchestrated one, at that.

    Dr. Larry Sanger brought the idea of a wiki architecture to the moribund Nupedia encyclopedia. Sanger named it “Wikipedia”. Sanger invited the first contributors to take a crack at it. And Sanger spent a year formulating the many policies and guidelines that still govern Wikipedia today.

    Here is Jimmy Wales cowardly trying to hide all of that:

    “Decline to participate, sorry.” Sorry, indeed — such a sorry man.

  4. kathi Says:

    nick, you have a giant brain.

  5. Nick Says:

    I’ve realised I wasn’t quite clear in this post.

    My point is: for Hayek there are essentially 2 kinds of knowledge. The “scientific” kind that can be centralised, and the “economic” kind that is distributed and domain-specific (time, place). Let’s leave aside whether this is adequate picture: I think it isn’t. But Wikipedia obviously accumulates the first, non-local kind of knowledge.

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