It's up to You - the economics of openDemocracy

Yes, great, independent content costs and if the readers don't pay for it who will? Why you should want openDemocracy to be supported by voluntary reader donations and give if you can
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
29 June 2010

The existence of openDemocreacy has to be paid for. I want to persuade you to contribute to this voluntarily. I don't want to "sell" you the idea, in the sense of clever marketing or using celebrity endorsements (although I am happy for us to do this as well in a clear, honest fashion). I want to persuade you of the necessity of your doing so.

Because I set out a case from first principles, it will apply also to our real and future competitors, in all the forms made available on the web. I welcome this. I am arguing for a cultural change where users expect and feel they should voluntarily support the public service content that they enjoy consuming on the web.

In the language of the discipline I was trained in - economics - openDemocracy produces a public good. Why? First, because information, analysis, commentary and active engagement with the issues of human rights, government and injustice everywhere across the globe is essential for the progress of democracy. Democracy is about self-government, and where can that be without self-understanding about government?

Especially important for me and the work I do editing our openEconomy section is the need to oppose the current masters of the global financial system and the damage they are doing. For democracy is about the totality of people's lives and livelihoods as well as how we chose our governments. 

If you agree that the project to build democracy is one of the most important that humanity is embarked on, this makes what openDemocracy is doing a public good.

For economists, a public good has two further characteristics beyond being something that it would be better to have than not to have: it is non-rival and non-excludable.

The first means that its use by one person does not limit its use by another. A classic example is a good story: my hearing it does not diminish it in any way for others to hear. Indeed, in the best cases of a 'non-rival' character, the more others have it, the greater its value becomes for me as it becomes a shared experience.

The second – 'non-excludable' – means that one cannot, or does not, or, important in our case, should not, exclude others from using or participating in its enjoyment. A lighthouse is the classic case: if a beam indicates a reef to a boat, it is hard for it not to indicate the same reef to another boat.The story and the lighthouse - they attract, they warn but above all they do not exclude anyone who comes within their range.

But modern technology means that it is quite easy to make the public good of the unfolding story of democracy exclusive: you put up a paywall or demand prior registration. Maybe that is fine for the unfolding story of financial markets, as told in the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal – after all, in those cases, the most valuable information is the information that the great majority do not have, so exclusion is natural, indeed is entirely in the spirit of what is reported on.

The story of democracy is different: exclusion is antithetical to self-government, self-understanding and accountability.  Exercising democracy through understanding and analysis is what one might call a public good in principle: it is not technology that makes it non-excludable, it is our choice that determines that it should be so.

So, openDemocracy is a public good, it is non-rival and non-excludable, the more people want it and have it, the better. This means not only writing, editing, growing and looking after openDemocracy, but also working to make the beam of oD's lighthouse penetrate further and alert people to its presence

How should this be paid for? The standard answer is through taxation of one sort or another. That's not an option open to openDemocracy.We don't have a state to enforce collection in the way, say, the BBC does with its license fee in the UK. Nor, indeed, would we want an enforcing state. We seek to be the change we want to see, and the "open" of "openDemocracy" implies that you can enter and exit as you please and as you need. Openness precludes enforcement.

With a decision in principle neither to have a paywall nor to enforce collection, how can we pay for the public good that openDemocracy strives to be? Advertising helps, but the advertising that pays enough to ensure the salaries of even a tiny staff comes from corporations and why should they pay for openDemocracy? 

There is just one answer left - voluntary subscription. That is exactly what David Elstein, our Chairman, is asking of us all, as readers of openDemocracy. It is a model that is responsible, allows us to grow and ensures our independence. If you want a more open and democratic world, if you want to read the arguments that explore how we can get this, and that criticise the present state of affairs, I hope you follow our logic and will voluntarily subscribe what you can afford.

And, this being a 'non-rival' activity: encourage others to do the same, by forwarding this link:

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