Non-Excludable, Non-Rival : The Upside-Down Economics of Good Ideas

Some thoughts to share on sharing thoughts…

“If you have an apple, and I have an apple, and we exchange apples, then you and I will still have one apple. But if you have an idea, and I have an idea, and we exchange ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” George Bernard Shaw.

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” Thomas Jefferson.


“The Iliad and The Odyssey can be spread throughout the world without anyone being deprived of them as a consequence.” Lewis Hyde


I’ve been thinking about these ideas (known in economics as non-excludable and non-rival goods) in relation to a novel I’m writing.

One of the things that’s struck me is that the shared project of human progress has moved away from these non-rival principles and become ‘excludable.’ The principles of profit mean that ideas that might be placed in the commons for the benefit of all are high-fenced, so only those who can pay get a look in, and those who consider themselves the ‘creator’ get infinite compensation for their stroke of genius. Feels a long way from Jefferson’s original American vision…


2 responses to “Non-Excludable, Non-Rival : The Upside-Down Economics of Good Ideas”

  1. Reminded me of this lecture by Rabbi Sacks

  2. Another economic principle which is poorly understood is Non-Zero Sum exchanges.
    I wonder if somethings spread faster if a charge is made in some cases. The idea or vision may be difficult to obtain but then people often pay it more attention if they see it as expensive. Experiments with wine have shown that the more expensive a consumer thinks their wine is, the better it tastes.

    So, a product is expensive or hard to obtain or hard to understand and only a few people can obtain it. But then, they profit from making a different version which captures some of the concepts or vision, yet is easier or cheaper to spread. Then those people repackage again.

    Thus, repackaging may be a way to perserve the benefit of profit (a Non-Zero Sum principle) and Non-Excludable, Non-Rival principle to the benefit of all.