Thin Liberalism and the Folly of Burning Bridges

Eben Moblen

Eben Moglen

James Lakely, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, recently pointed me to a new study he’s written on the network neutrality debate. (See also his op-ed summarizing the argument.) Lakely is clearly a smart guy, and his paper is backed up by a significant amount of research. However, the basic argument of his paper—that the network neutrality movement has “unwittingly bought into” the “radical agenda” of the free software movement—strikes me as pretty misguided.

Lakely quotes extensively from the work of free software intellectuals like Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen. To his credit, he gives a relatively even-handed account of what free software advocates believe, quoting them in their own words and acknowledging some important nuances. The problem is that this very fair-mindedness undermines his argument, because the quotes he selects reveal not a collectivist ideology, but an individualist, bottom-up one. From Moglen’s unfortunately (and, I suspect, half-ironically) named “The dotCommunist Manifesto,” for example, Lakely quotes a passage in which Moglen declares himself “committed to the struggle for free speech, free knowledge, and free technology.” Which sounds pretty good for me. Lakely also quotes Students for Free Culture, a campus activist organization that to my knowledge has never taken a position on network neutrality regulation. He quotes the following passage, with what I assume is disapproval:

The mission of the Free Culture movement is to build a bottom-up, participatory structure to society and culture, rather than a top-down, closed, proprietary structure. Through the democratizing power of digital technology and the Internet, we can place the tools of creation and distribution, communication and collaboration, teaching and learning into the hands of the common person — and with a truly active, connected, informed citizenry, injustice and oppression will slowly but surely vanish from the earth.

I’ve re-read that passage several times, and I’m still baffled about why any libertarian or supporter of the free market would object to it. The free market, after all, is a “bottom-up, participatory structure” for the economy—why wouldn’t we want “society and culture” organized in the same fashion? And what possible objection could there be to expanding access to “the tools of creation and distribution, communication and collaboration, teaching and learning?” Aren’t we all opposed to “injustice and oppression?”

Yochai Benkler

Yochai Benkler

I’m playing dumb a little bit. Stallman, Moglen, Benkler, Wu, Lessig, et all are not libertarians, and they have a tendency to rhetorical excess that rubs free-market types the wrong way. Moglen in particular likes to salt his speeches with Marxist jargon that almost seems tailor-made to alienate libertarians. So fair enough: Eben Moglen is not the free software movement’s best ambassador to the libertarian movement.

But it’s important that we not exalt form over substance. The libertarian quarrel with socialism isn’t with their egalitarianism, but with their willingness to impose that egalitarianism by force of law. Libertarians argue that free markets and robust civil society are good for the poor precisely because they are “bottom-up, participatory structures” that give every individual the opportunity to make the most of their own lives.

The free software movement is textbook example of the libertarian thesis: it’s a private, voluntary community producing public goods without a dime of taxpayer support. Some leaders of the free software movement don’t realize they’re walking libertarian case studies, and some have an unfortunate tendency to employ left-wing rhetoric to describe what they’re doing. But if you look at the substance of their views, and even more if you look at their actions, it’s hard to find anything for libertarians to object to.

So Lakely winds up attacking a movement full of actual and potential allies because some of its members support a proposed government regulation Lakely (and I) oppose. And to be fair, Lakely is far from alone. A number of libertarian and free-market intellectuals and organization have gone out of their way to antagonize the free software movement.I think this illustrates the danger of the “thin” conception of liberty espoused by Seavey, McCarthy, and company. A libertarian whose conception of liberty is confined to limited government is going to be left rudderless when confronted with a pro-liberty movement whose concerns are orthogonal to the size of government. And this is not only stupid politically, it’s also a huge mistake on the merits because ultimately classical liberalism is about liberty, not just limited government.

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55 Responses to Thin Liberalism and the Folly of Burning Bridges

  1. Rhayader says:

    The libertarian quarrel with socialism isn’t with their egalitarianism, but with their willingness to impose that egalitarianism by force of law. Libertarians argue that free markets and robust civil society are good for the poor precisely because they are “bottom-up, participatory structures” that give every individual the opportunity to make the most of their own lives.

    Well said Tim. The disconnect here is strategic and tactical, not philosophical. The whole pragmatic libertarian stance is that freedom is the best (and, really, only) path toward true equality and prosperity. Statist objections to libertarianism almost always involve the means to that ultimate end, not the end itself.

  2. roystgnr says:

    It’s an irrational reaction from so-called “libertarians” and “intellectuals” who should know better. The free software people have found a situation where “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” actually *works* (zero marginal costs are helpful there…), and so there’s bound to be some Communist-sounding rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise to ignore the fact that “no force, no fraud” is still in effect. Rhayader hit it on the nose: there’s nothing wrong with ideals like equality, sharing, etc., just because they’ve often historically used as excuses to ignore or subvert freedom.

  3. Alan says:

    Check the caption on your photo. You talk about “Eben Moglen” in your story, but the person in the photo is apparently “Eben Moblen.”

  4. RobbBlack says:

    I think one of the problems with this discussion is the classic “defining of terms”. There are the “Big L” Libertarians and the “small l” libertarians.

    Big L Libertarians are the left overs from the Republican Party when the Republican Party was coopted by the Moral Majority/Christian Right. They reject any attempt by others to enforce a social/moral code on individual behavior. However, they remain staunch supporters of free market capitalism (whatever that means — seriously…just like communism…it is good in theory but has never truly been implemented in its purest form (sorry for the digression)). So consequently, I can understand why they would be opposed to free software. If something is free, you cannot own it. It belongs to no one. That just doesn’t fit in a Libertarian framework of how the world should work. Libertarians also believe collaborative work is inferior by its very definition (Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead is her commentary on the weakness of collaborative effort versus the strength and triumph of individual effort).

    Then you have the small l libertarians. These are the individuals who are more concerned about personal freedom and the rights of free association. While the above article comments that big S Socialists want to enforce their program from the top down, this is a gross oversimplification of socialist thought. There are what can be referred to as authoritarian-socialists (think Lenin, Mao, Stalin, et al) and libertarian-socialists (i.e. Anarchists — noted linguist Chomsky has described himself as a libertarian-socialist). The libertarian-socialists are not top down; they are bottom up. They value collaboration, free association, and mutual aid. Basically socialist ideology, but implemented from the bottom up by individuals working together in their existing communities.

    If I was to label the free-software movement, I would say they would fall into the small l libertarian camp with maybe a few of the free software advocates actually being libertarian-socialists. Free software and open source software are all about collaboration and mutual aid. Making sure that everyone has equal access to the resources of the community (i.e. Net Neutrality) is a very libertarian-socialist idea.

    My two cents…

  5. Darren says:

    Libertarianism sounds good in theory, but then so does Communism. In practice both fail miserably. If you look at Chile in the 70s and 80s you can see how well Libertarianism works. Remember the policies of Auguste Pinochet and what they did to the average Chilean?

  6. Sara says:

    Just because one libertarian group says something doesn’t mean it’s a blanket for every libertarian.

    Someone who is philosophically a libertarian wouldn’t care what someone else did with their free time. If there are people who want to code and use free software, that’s awesome as it’s a use of individual’s own liberties and freedom on how they choose to use their time.

  7. Jim says:

    RobbBlack hit the nail on the head. I know many libertarians who fully believe in the free software movement and network neutrality. They truly understand libertarianism and the free market.

    Then there’s some people I know who claim to be libertarians, but are really Reagan Republicans. They don’t believe in a true free market, they believe in open ended capitalism, whether or not the market is really “free”.

  8. Garry says:

    To be against free culture and declare yourself to be a libertarian is illogical. I believe many of the misinformed “libertarian reactions” are a knee jerk reaction to the misguided statist leanings of many in the free culture movement. Unfortunately many free culture advocates are also off the reservation by demanding that the free culture conform to a socialist agenda. With central command, control nothing and rigid conformity can be free or open.

  9. bmuller says:

    Demanding that carriers operate their networks in specific ways is coercion. That is the point that many libertarians disagree with – the fact that ISPs/etc will be forced to operate their networks in a governmentally prescribed manner. “No force, no fraud” will be violated when companies are forced to operate their legally owned pipes in a “popular” way.

  10. laughing says:

    Libertarianism is just a thin veneer placed over plutocratic politics. Libertarians want absolute power in the hands of the wealthy few. Of course they aren’t going to like the free software movement.

    I also disagree with our description of the Internet being “their networks.” The Internet is a creation of the US government that never would have existed without the government. Corporations should be expected to play by the rules if they want to make money off of it. Net neutrality is as basic to a fully functional Internet as HTTP and IP.

  11. Darren, did you just compare a military dictatorship (Augusto Pinochet) with free markets? You will have to explain this a bit more because I see no connection there whatsoever.

    The bottom line is this: I have observed that many of the people involved in the free/open software projects are outright socialists. Many hate free markets, they don’t understand competition or business cycles, they think that because they can pump out free software people will actually use it. When the corporate world (see Evil Microsoft) actually wins the battle every year, they go complain to a federal agency or ask the government to intervene and manipulate markets.

    They do not like what the markets decides; until they can provide a better product (free or not), things will not change.

  12. Jim Harper says:

    Virgil – you beat me to it!

  13. dr2chase says:

    “Demanding that carriers operate their networks in specific ways is coercion.”

    But demanding that I not run my own unlicensed radio station, at whatever the heck frequency and power I choose, is not? Till the carriers acquire their right-of-way and spectrum foot-by-foot and frequency-by-frequency, they’re involved in a negotiation with our government, and this is part of that negotiation. There’s plenty of economic theory on network effects that can show how these lead to stable monopolies, which are market-bad. Network neutrality is not the poster child for why governments should not interfere with business.

  14. SirLanse says:

    A Libertarian should not care what you do with your time.
    If you want to code, ok, If you want to give it away,ok.
    Just don’t force me to give mine away.
    Connectivity providers want to put up a toll on applications that NEED bandwidth. Free market people like this. The only problem is that many markets have granted monopolies to the providers.
    The other one that is going to hit like an anvil is:
    With Net Neutrality you are just a common carrier with no knowledge of what you carry. Like the post office cannot be prosecuted for delivering pot, the carrier won’t be prosecuted for delivering pr0n.
    If they start to inspect packets to determine the throttle, they will then be subject to knowing what is being delivered.
    The other evil of throttling is that it allows the ISP to decide who can connect and how well they can connect to their users.

  15. Sl8ofHand says:

    The reason Micro$oft wins this battle is that the playing field was heavily tilted in their favor when Bill Gates IV tied his wagon to IBM’s PC…since then, they have continued to outspend on marketing, rather than development of software. Free software rarely has the marketing budget of a powerhouse like MS and the press is much less likely to cover those who don’t spend a bundle advertising.

  16. Bill Ahern says:

    I’d be more comfortable without net neutrality rules if there was a healthy marketplace in network access. But considering that the government maintains a strict monopoly on spectrum–catering to a small cadre of companies, many (most?) of whom would be subject to this neutrality rule–and considering that anti-neutrality folks proffer no meaningful counter-proposals, as a practical matter I have no problem with net neutrality.

    IMO, most of the anti-neutrality backlash is instinctive and ignorant. I can appreciate the instinct, but instinct is no substitute for considered judgment.

    The best argument the anti-neutrality folks have is that, if network discrimination was truly inefficient, it will eventually work itself out. Fair enough. But at what cost? At the end of the day, if the economic cost of this specific government regulation is less than the cost of ill-considered access policies, I vote government regulation. The large telecom behemoths can hardly be categorically differentiated from the FCC in terms of market aptitude and responsiveness to externalities. In any event, there are real economic paradoxes which if allowed to play out might persist a less than optimal outcome if this particular market were left to its own devices (and I mean not to say they’re resolved by “big brother”, but that the FCC can act as a coordinating agent).

    People need to stop using labels and theories as crutches. There are facts on the ground, and these facts should be the primary consideration. It seems to me that both sides of the debate largely agree that open access is preferable as long as costs are covered, but the anti-neutrality side wishes to obtain that result by hope and conviction.

    You can see the same thing with software patents. Property == Good, Patents == Property, Patents == Good. Sometimes distinctions and facts matter, and labels provide a disservice by obscuring substance. People familiar with the history and nature of communications networks tend to agree that discrimination is ill-considered. How many TCP/IP killers have come and gone over the decades? TCP/IP has always proven “good enough”. It has generally proven cheaper to add capacity than to attempt to discriminate and throttle. Reality is being ignored. If society doesn’t want to pay the cost for telecom to perpetually relearn the lesson, so be it.

  17. William Lugaila says:

    I have to disagree with the postings that say libertarian’s are all against free software. Some people who claim to be libertarian are just socialist, leftest, communist in disguise. This story sounds like it was written by a democrat, who wants bigger goverment. I was a republican and decided they did not meet my views on life and politics. The libertarian party was more, but not all what I had with my views. I beleive in free markets, use of free software, free choice for people to make their own decisions, no hand outs, no biases or discrimination against race, sex or religion. I think some of the best software out there is free. I also beleive we no longer have the rights that the founding fathers created. I think everyone has rights to do waht they want without government stepping in and saying they can’t do it because the government knows better what is best for you. Governement is the biggest problem and they are not the solution. The person who stated ” Libertarians want absolute power in the hands of the wealthy few.” has it wrong. The Republicans and Democrats want that. Libertarians want less government envolved in peoples lives. Maybe you need to do your research or are you one of the Obama’s supporters and want to control our lives? Sorry I got off topic. I do support free software and free markets and I am a Liberatarian!

  18. Harry Tuttle says:

    You will have to explain this a bit more because I see no connection there whatsoever.

    There is no connection, but there doesn’t need to be. A dictatorship is a purely political term and the “free market” is an economic system. They can co-exist quite easily, if perversely.

    “Free markets” is a red herring anyways (hah! get it? red?). Neither the FSM nor Libertarians deny the market. The difference in approach is exactly the “bottom-up, participatory structure” of the FSM. Traditional capitalism, as championed by libertarians, is top-down and non-participatory. One guy owns the factory and makes all the decisions.

    What open source, net neutrality and free software participate in is far more akin to Syndicalism; A ‘system’ where the control of the means of production lies with those who actually produce stuff using either their own or communally held equipment rather than those who pay others to produce stuff using centrally owned and managed equipment.

    Syndicalism is to Libertarianism what democracy is to oligarchy.

  19. Mark says:

    there’s another angle here: some libertarians (perhap big-L) are upset by network neutrality because it does impinge on the control an ISP can exert. at one level, the issue is an ISP who creates a walled garden: makes all searches go to their chosen search provider, etc. inject targetted ads into html content, etc. in most ways, this is handlable as a contract issue: such a service might be hard to sell to customers if they were fully informed of its invasiveness. the other level is a bit more conspiratorial: media copyright holders would be very happy if they could make the DRM pipe hermetically sealed. that means inspecting traffic to prevent leaks, such as P2P. there seem to be two local minima: either ISPs are common-carrier (and therefore network-neutral), or they’re offering a completely defined service (which makes them responsible for violations). AFAIKT, the neocon/libertarian angle is based on the belief that all content is IP, and thus must be defended against pinko subversion just like physical property rights. of course, it’s NOT the case that OSS is subverting the IP concept as a whole (only the more extreme parts of it – DMCA is pretty close to those dubious extremes as well.)

  20. Years ago, a card-carrying Libertarian bristled when I called Richard Stallman an “extreme libertarian.” “Not even close. Marxist/Maoist,” was his terse reply. But I stand by the characterization. Stallman simply values the rights of the users of a piece of software more than the rights of the original author(s). Or, perhaps, he values the rights of the two equally. That’s a separate debate. Whichever way you slice it, it’s about individual freedom, which is a tenet of libertarianism.

    Funny things happen on the fringes of political philosophies. At the fringe, any philosophy can begin to look like its polar opposite–in this case, libertarianism and communism. Stallman is on that fringe, which makes him difficult to characterize. If you focus on the right to freely copy the software, he can look communist, but if you focus on the right to freely modify it, he looks libertarian.

    The two movements aren’t the best of friends and never will be, but there’s no reason at all for them to be incompatible.

  21. phayes says:

    Dear (teenage?) libertarians, socialists, liberals, conservatives etc. Looking at the world through the distorting lens of ill-founded and simplistic political ideologies – and even trying to make it conform to such antequated, pre-scientific era fantasies – is a luxury and an indulgence we certainly no longer need and probably can no longer afford.


    FYI people /are/ using it. The corporate world is using it (and winning!). Even you are using it. And do you not see the irony in castigating FOSS for doing (a very little of) what corporations regularly spend vast sums of money doing?

  22. Lizard says:

    As a very longtime libertarian advocate on the net, I find the knee-jerk reaction of some self-proclaimed “libertarians” to be very troubling. (Then again, a lot of so-called “libertarianism” on the net has, in the last 5-10 years, become a refuge for extreme right wing religious kooks who resent the government taking away their “liberty” to shoot homosexuals and burn witches — if scum like Gary North, ultranationalist anti-immigration fanatics, and anti-abortion activists can get away with calling themselves “libertarian”, the term has lost any and all meaning. But I digress.)

    Libertarianism is about the absence of coercion. With the fairly important caveat that one may not act so as to deprive someone else of their rights by force or fraud, what one chooses to DO with one’s own freedom is not anyone else’s concern. If you WISH, of your own choice, to do valuable work (like writing software), and give it away (taking payment in the form of satisfaction or praise, in essence), that’s entirely your business, pun intended. If the “free” model does drive out the “for profit” model — well, from a libertarian perspective, SO FRACKIN’ WHAT? A key tenet of libertarian economics is that no one has a *right* to a profitable business, just the right to try and to keep the profits if one succeeds. No libertarian worthy of the name would claim the government should intervene to keep the corner store open when a Wal-Mart sets up down the street. No libertarian would advocate tariffs on imported goods in order to “protect” poorly-run native businesses. If a company can’t compete with “free” — if it can’t find a way to use the profits from commercial software to create something worth paying for — it deserves to fail.

  23. kws says:

    “Demanding that carriers operate their networks in specific ways is coercion.”

    ISPs should be treated like any other utility. Would you want your electric utility to dictate what brand or type of appliances a person could operate in their house? No. Then why do you want the ISPs to build the next generation of walled gardens? If people really liked that model, everyone would still be using AOL. The ISPs need to rid themselves of the delusions of being content providers in control of their customers. If they want to provide premium services to their customers, fine. Charge them for it. The reason that the internet is vibrant and an opportunity for free enterprise is due to its open nature. Allowing monopolies to choke off net neutrality will do nothing but stifle future innovation and freedom.

  24. DesScorp says:

    The Libertarian (and conservative) objection to “Network Neutrality” as it’s currently defined, is an argument about property and freedom to do business. They argue that ATT, Verizon, et all, have the right to meter bandwidth and run their businesses the way they like because it’s their businesses, using equipment and bandwidth that’s their property. And if you don’t like it, go to a competitor, or start your own Internet access co-op (much as people that don’t like banks start their own S&L’s and Credit Unions.

  25. grrr says:

    Is see a lot of discussion from ideological level about open source development but clearly nobody here writes software as I miss an understanding what software development is about and what collaboration and interoperability does mean in software development. Anybody who wants to destroy a valuable thing like open-source development for his ideology is in my eyes just a fascist!

  26. Brook says:

    Darren Wrote:
    “Libertarianism sounds good in theory, but then so does Communism. In practice both fail miserably. If you look at Chile in the 70s and 80s you can see how well Libertarianism works. Remember the policies of Auguste Pinochet and what they did to the average Chilean?”

    Why do people always say this? Communism looks just as stupid on paper as it does in practice.

    And this ridiculous anti-libertarian throwback to Pinochet is so ridiculous. I don’t even see how people can continue to bring that up. But someone already pointed out that dictatorships don’t compare to libertarian govt.

  27. walterbyrd says:

    What major proprietary software company does not give away free software? Microsoft gives away an “express” (i.e. free) version of practically everything; Oracle, Sun, and IBM, all give aways free software and/or contribute to major f/oss projects.

    Seems to me that all of these “institutes” or “think tanks” or “analysts groups” or whatever; are just paid corporate shills. In spite of what they may call themselves, they are in no way objective, neutral, conservative, libertarian, or anything else. They say whatever their corporate sponsors tell them to say, their “studies” prove whatever their corporate sponsors want them to “prove.”

    I consider myself to be fairly familiar with libertarian thought, and I see no reason that free software would be a problem with any real libertarian.

  28. carl says:

    The telecom vendors are not opposing network neutrality for political reasons, but for economic reasons. The telcos want to charge customers to maximize revenue (gouge the public) and minimize costs (not invest in upgraded wiring to support higher traffic).
    Any political rhetoric is eyewash to conceal their attempts to lobby for (buy) the regulations they want, as they have during the Bush administration.
    Mr. Lakely is a political whore, selling opinions to support the positions of whoever signs checks.

  29. chemicalscum says:

    There are too distinct and antagonistic “libertarianisms”. Right wing libertarianism as represented by the the Libertarian Party and its quasi Republican hangers on in the US, that believes in freedom for capital and left wing libertarianism which believes in freedom for people.

    The two are mutually exclusive. Free capital enslaves people, a free people must abolish capital. State capitalism which misappropriated the term “communism” is just a form of capitalism developed to achieve what Marx described as primitive accumulation in the era of imperialism, it too enslaved people. Even left liberal economic thinkers like the Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz know that there is no such thing as a free market, in fact proving that was what he got his Nobel prize for. A great improvement from the days of the Chicago school ideological charlatans. Free markets inevitably become distorted with the production of monopolies.

    In the US the best known left wing (or socialist) libertarian thinker is Noam Chomsky but I think the libertarian thinker that is the best precursor of the ideas of Stallman and Moglen in the free software movement is the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. His ideas on mutual aid seem to be the precursor to Stallmans moral imperative on sharing software. His ideas applying mutual aid to evolution also influenced the well known American biologist the late Stephen Jay Gould. Kropotkin was an aristocrat, anarchist, soldier, explorer, geologist, biologist and revolutionary a remarkable mixture. In Russia after the revolution in the 1920’s Lenin organized a state funeral for him on his death, then Lenin started rounding up and imprisoning the anarchists.

  30. dvilla says:

    @walterbyrd, I think you lack an understanding of what free software is. Please see for an explanation.

  31. Tim,

    I really like your post, but I’d like to add another critique of the anti-free-software libertarians out there. I think the reason that most of the folks are against the free software movement is because their only familiar with the movement is through “movement types” like the folks you cite above. These folks can be pretty poor ambassadors for libertarians because of the rhetoric they use, like you mentioned.

    Sadly, libertarian writers stop there. I was guilty of this in the past and it’s why I didn’t see the truth in a lot of your writing. However, in working with the WordPress and Drupal communities over the past three years (and to some degress the larger LAMP-stack community) I have come to understand why the free software movement works, and very little about it has to do with ideology or dotCommunism.

    In my experience, many developers give away their software for entirely self-interested reasons. Making your code open make you well known, well-respected by your peers, and therefore worth much more in the marketplace. In addition, established web development firms participate in open source development not solely because of some motivation to make the world a better place (though this may be a partial motivation), but because any software platform they might attempt to make on their own will simply be worse than something made and maintained by a community of tens of thousands.

    On the consumer side of things, I can’t see why anyone would choose a closed source option in a software category where a sufficiently large community of open source developers exist–this explains by about 65% of the Net is running Apache. For the consumer, open source not only means cheaper (free is as cheap as it gets), it also almost invariably means better quality software because of the benefits of having so many developers look at the same lines of code, and more versatile software because those same thousands are adapting these open platforms to fit all manner of esoteric applications.

    So, if libertarians are uncomfortable with the rhetoric of the self-appointed spokesman for the open/free software movement, they need only take a look at the folks actually producing and consuming open/free software. These folks are not pursuing some Marxist ideology, but rather acting in their rational self interest in a free market. Looks pretty libertarian to me.

  32. rp says:

    The FOSS movement is a good thing but it seems to me that its primary ideologues want to snub out alternatives that have yielded good results. I have not seen any compelling evidence that a FOSS model would yield the same level and quality of service that has been generated by the enterprise model. I’m not saying that its impossible for FOSS. In time it may become self evident that FOSS is sufficiently superior at delivering results to eliminate alternatives by the force of natural economic selection. But, at this time the argument for that seems to me to be almost a pure rationalization and the push by FOSS ideologues comes across like an oppressive jihad and media marketing blitz combined. I buy software when the FOSS stuff doesn’t cut it and that happens to be most of the time. Please stop screaming in my ear about it. I’m trying to stay on your side.

    Ideologues of all stripes seem to ignore, discount or idealize real individual and collective human behavior in their rational frameworks. When attempts to implement overly simplistic ideologies fail, the rationalizations are endless and the demonizations of human behaviors and of of sectors of the population are inevitable. Historical facts are simply disregarded as though the human animal today were somehow different or smarter or better behaved than the people who comprised the systems that failed in the past. Its depressing to watch and listen to.

    We are what we are and until we have a good enough understanding of what that is and have a non-self-destructive acceptance of it, there is little hope of workable and lasting political and economic system that brings real satisfaction to most of the population most of the time. Even if such a model were possible it would probably presume a degree of environmental stability that may not be reasonable to expect, our delusions with regard to control of the environment not withstanding.

    I’m a libertarian and I understand that libertarianism is more than a issue regarding size of government and levels of taxation. But, once the government reaches a certain size then perhaps it becomes the only issue. At what level of taxation does personal freedom and economic freedom become a logical equality. I will not go into the issue of what we pay in direct and indirect taxes at present because it is tangential to much of what is being said here but I will say that the percentage is much higher than most people realize. Small business people like myself get the clearest picture of it and it is an astounding thing when you can’t avoid looking at it. The bottom line is that our government is way too big already so that discussing orthogonality of particular issues to the size of government is becoming of increasingly questionable relevance.

  33. Ian says:

    I’m neither a socialist nor a libertarian, strictly speaking, and I love the liberties granted by open source licenses, but I can see a libertarian argument in opposition to it and it looks something like this:

    I’ll offer this snapshot matrix of a moral ethic that I think of as Libertarian:

    The morality of an exchange is the function of the motive force of both the giver and the receiver, and those forces are generally in their extremes as listed below (think of them as a continuity between the extremes, not as an either/or dichotomy).

    motive in receiving: entitlement gratitude
    motive for giving: compelled willing

    Which gives you two axis to plot the exchange of goods/services between two people into four quadrants –

    1. compelled giving to recipients who feel entitled
    2. compelled giving to recipients who are grateful
    3. willing giving to recipients who feel entitled
    4. willing giving to recipients who are grateful

    This ethos says that only transactions in quadrant 4 are truly moral, while the transactions in quadrants 2 and 3 are of ambiguous morality (and therefore suspect and to be actively minimized), and transactions in category 1 are unquestionably immoral.

    At the end of the day, any pragmatic assessment of FOSS has to concede that, as it becomes more wide-spread, the increase in quadrant 2 and 3 transactions will also increase because of the demands of “casual consumers” of software products and the continuing activity to legislate what can be done with derivative and applied application of licensed using FOSS licenses. These licenses are at the engine of the “FOSS Movement” and they are, in their nature, compulsive to those who choose to provide inputs to the system in the form of research dollars, code, man-hours, etc., for the benefit of those who consume the software product who, in turn, suffer a lighter load of compulsive requirements if they do not contribute back to the community. Very nearly the dogmatic definition of the term “parasite” in the context of economic libertarianism.

    They are, like all licenses, antithetical to the “sweat of the brow” doctrine of private property that is at the core of market economics because they dictate, as the price of entry, that you conform to the will of the initial creator, rather than being able to co-opt and extend wholly in the direction and manner you will. However in the case of free software in particular, that will is deeply communal in nature, thus the strictures of the GPL compel those who contribute to the code to be inclusive to the community, rather than the exclusive norms that un-free license embrace, i.e. they have to share. Sharing, like digital replication, isn’t a concept that market economics, with its foundations built on scarcity, can deal with very well.

    In the end that disconnect (in effect an architectural flaw in their system), I think, more than the strictures compelling the sharing itself, is why the “FOSS movement” suffers for sympathy among the libertarian intelligentsia.

  34. blah says:

    Imaginary property rights have no place in libertarianism, copyright and patent monopolies should be abolished.

  35. B Swiss says:

    A “research fellow at the Heartland Institute” is not likely to be saying anything relevant, except in a purely partisan-political sense. The “Heartland Institute is just another of those corporate-shill, so-called “think-tanks” — one that already has an unenviable reputation.

    Among their other campaigns they are denying Climate Change/Global Warming and the deleterious health effects of cigarettes. You may remember them as the guys who refused, even when confronted by the supposedly contributing scientists themselves, to remove the names of these alleged Global-Warming sceptics as “co-authors” of the Institute’s anti-Global-Warming papers, articles and other propaganda.

    I see no reason why anyone would waste their time trying to sift the wheat from the chaff, in such a case. (unless of course, one is researching a paper on propaganda and public relations in the current American corporate-political milieu, or the history of transnational corporations in the public sphere, as exemplified by Exxon and Phillip Morris, or some such topic).

  36. Rick York says:

    To paraphrase von Moltke, “No ideology survives contact with reality”.

  37. Michael Bubb says:

    A common mistake to equate ideas of Equality and ‘evenness’ with Communism (specifically Marxism). The key way that Free Software and Open Source movements are analogous to Marxism is that there is control over the ‘means of production’. In this case that means the source code is open.

    That is the key concept here. Not that the software can be acquired for free.

    There is definitely a libertarian element to hacking in general and the free software movement in general (heterogeneous as it is). Think of it in terms of its origins. Before Richard Stallman was an evangelist he fashioned some pretty incredible tools so that he did not have to rely upon very expensive and not as good tools.

    I think that this argument often gets hung up on inaccurate application of the word free in the term ‘free software’

  38. phayes says:

    Hehe… “Think tank” ‘science’ is often very bad, yes – but it’s got nothing on “think tank” ‘arithmetic’:

    “The proposed directive’s four criteria for a computer implemented invention to be granted a patent – novelty, inventive step and industrial applicability – were meant to avoid a US-like situation where software per se is patentable.” –The Stockholm Network, in its submission to the Gowers Review of IP in 2006.


  39. David Schwartz says:

    Libertarians are right to oppose some parts of the Free Software movement. As an obvious example, it is a major thrust of most of the Free Software movement that copyrights should be as powerful as patents, but with none of the checks and balances.

    These hypocrites oppose software patents. But at the same time claim that software copyright gives them privileges that only software patents could give them. For example, many Linux developers will claim that you cannot write a Linux driver without GPLing it. That is, they claim copyright not over one way among millions of other equally functional ways (the way copyright is supposed to work) but copyright over anything that has a particular function (which only patents are supposed to be able to do).

    This is just one example of how the supposed free software folks are actually anti-free market. Note that this only applies to those who would wield their licenses as swords, as the FSF does.

    Those who just want people to write and share software for free, but do not try to use their license like a super-EULA are potential allies of Libertarians.

  40. Alex says:

    I consider myself to lean more toward libertarian thoughts and ideas, specifically the idea that freedom of the individual, all individuals, should be such a normal thing that it’s entirely without dispute in all corners of this world.

    To me, such an ideal jives very well with the ideals of the FOSS movement. I understand some of the hallmarks of FOSS are obviously far across the political fence from my views. That’s perfectly fine to me as well, as portions of their work contribute and expand the FOSS movement, and I can use such tools to better my world, through my views.

    I guess, it comes down to this: To me, there is only one ‘correct answer’; I am committed to it, I know my views are best for me. Their works benefit me, and I do my best to give back where I can. Those that dissent with my views are welcome to, and I encourage it, as it helps me grow as a person. But at the end of the day, the reality of the situation as I see it is still there; no amount of screaming and yelling false info can change it. “My beliefs do not require your belief to be the same, for them to hold true to all.”

  41. blah says:

    David Schwartz has a very flawed understanding of free software and copyright law. Free software licences *relax* restrictions already present in copyright law (typically unlike insane closed-source EULAs). Copyright law is prohibits derived works, not the GPL.

    By undermining copyright monopolies, free software licences are pretty much intrinsically pro-free-market. You /can’t have/ a true free market while copyright and patent monopolies exist. Anti-free-market economists like to dress that simple fact up with ranting about “market failure” and “free riders”.

  42. EL Jefe says:

    The reason some of us libertarians are opposed to “Net Neutrality” is that it is a legal framework to force those who have expended billions of dollars to behave in a certain way. That is not liberty. Liberty is permitting those who own networks to charge what the market will bear. The government’s job is to make sure those who have networks don’t do things that would prevent a new competitor from building a competing network. I agree that a true libertarian would care less what one does with his free time – and should have no quibble with – open sourced software, forcing a network owner (including its thousands of shareholders) to treat all payers equally is unsupportable. Airlines charge more for bigger, comfier seats. Restaurants charge more for finer cuts of meat. Networks should be able to charge for higher customer service. If you want a flat rate for all traffic, then those who would gladly pay less for less urgent traffic are forced to pay higher rates. Government enforced “Net – Neutrality” is closer to a communist idea, stating that those who don’t own the network get to dictate how its used and charged for.

  43. Jean Naimard says:

    In reality, libertarians only want to be free of government interference in their quest for more power/wealth.

    So anything that shares stuff (like libre software that’s available gratis) is bad because it means that you cannot hoard it.

  44. Patrick says:

    As many others have commented here, many people claim to be “libertarians” when in fact they’re nothing more than slightly more conservative neo-conservatives. Which means they don’t stand for liberty, they don’t stand for freedom… they just like to pretend they do. They are frauds.

    A true libertarian (note the small ‘l’, not the capital ‘L’, which would denote the non-libertarian political party) loves both the idea of net neutrality as well as the idea of open source software, and strongly supports both ideas.

    There is absolutely no reason a true libertarian (read: one who is against the state as well as all other forms of illegitimate control) would be against net neutrality or free, open source software… unless, of course, one wished to force the idea of OSS on someone else. 😀

    As an anarcho-capitalist, I *strongly* support open source software, and have contributed to a few FOSS projects myself.

    For a great example of what true libertarians stand for, check out Lew, a well-known “anti-state, anti-war, pro-market” libertarian, is a champion for *true* liberty, and the folks that write articles for his website as well as his blog are *true* libertarians, who, by the way, have had nothing but good things to say about the open source movement.

  45. Patrick says:

    Continuing on with my last comment, I’d like to clarify a few points…

    Libertarians are against illegitimate control.

    Forcing someone to do something that they don’t want to do — this is exactly what government does, this is how it operates… key word is “govern” — is illegitimate control, and is in fact a crime (or, at least, would be if the government wasn’t the one doing it).

    And so where libertarians *are* against the idea of net neutrality is where the government unjustly steps in and uses *force* to tell the ISP how it can run it’s OWN business — even if the ISP is committing no true crime.

    Unless the ISP is committing some crime against its customers — such as violating their contract, stealing private information, etc etc — then the ISP must be left alone, for a true free market operates on an extremely basic but also extremely important principle: the voluntary transaction. The voluntary transaction is king. Voluntary is the only just way. Millions of people *voluntarily* handing over their money to businesses in exchange for a service or product (note the difference between that and taxation, which is money stolen from the people by force).

    That’s how it has to be. To say to an ISP, “we don’t like the service you provide, or the prices you charge, so you know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna fine you, jail you, run you out of business, take over your business…” is completely wrong and completely *unjust*. You as the customer have the choice: pay them, or not pay them. Subscribe to their services, or take your business elsewhere. They are not breaking into your house government-style in the middle of the night dressed in ninja outfits armed with high-powered guns forcing you to subscribe to their services, are they?

    Just because you don’t like what a company provides doesn’t give you OR the government the right to exercise control or any amount of force against said company if the company is committing no true crime against you. Otherwise you are committing a crime yourself.

    *THAT* is where the libertarian is against net neutrality. Force is wrong, a crime is a crime, no matter who does it.

  46. Bill Ahern says:

    Patrick (and others),

    But a libertarian cannot honestly oppose net neutrality and yet not propose and fight for alternatives such as open spectrum. The government has monopolized all of our rights to freely broadcast and communicate, and placed them into the hands of telecom and cable carriers. They use arguments such as “natural monopolies” to justify this, without any basis in modern science.

    As far as I’m concerned, I retain an interest in those rights taken from me, and it’s legitimate for me (and society) to exercise that interest to the fullest extent practicable. If the fullest extent, lamentably, happens to be by imposing net neutrality regulation, then I have every right to do that, just as surely you would recognize that I have a right to recover loss from a thief or assailant.

    This idea of unjust force is uninformed and ignorant. The best constructive approach is for everybody to repeal *all* telecom regulation. Yes, it’s a daunting task to unwind the current administrative systems.

    Short of that, I’m going to fight to retain some semblance of interest in my right. How dare you suggest that I should sacrifice my freedom so that the companies benefiting from the very expropriation can proceed to tax me! Preposterous! These companies stand to lose nothing more than what they’ve taken, and in actuality they’re losing significantly less. I’m getting a pittance in return.

  47. Patrick says:

    “The best constructive approach is for everybody to repeal *all* telecom regulation.”

    You’re absolutely right… that is the answer. I’ll even take it a step further… the best approach to solve our economic woes is to repeal *all* regulation in *all* industries.

    “The government has monopolized all of our rights to freely broadcast and communicate, and placed them into the hands of telecom and cable carriers.”

    Right again. This is the government’s M.O. Control, regulate, control, regulate… then when bad things happen, blame the “free” market so they have an excuse for more control, more regulation.

    “If the fullest extent, lamentably, happens to be by imposing net neutrality regulation, then I have every right to do that, just as surely you would recognize that I have a right to recover loss from a thief or assailant.”

    But why argue for more regulation? If it was regulation that got us into this mess… why argue for more of it? The cycle has to be broken. More power *cannot* be given to the government.

    Why not instead go after the source of the problem… the source being that criminal organization we call government?

    For regulation *is* unjust force. I agree, down with the companies who are able to gain an unfair advantage by utilizing the government’s control (see also: health insurance companies). Up with the competing companies who are being shut out by the government’s regulations, subsidies, and so on that give the bigger companies unfair advantages.

    But don’t you think we should focus on getting rid of the government, which steals and controls and murders and oppresses? That created the beast, the regulations, in the first place?

    “Property == Good, Patents == Property, Patents == Good.”

    Actually, patents are not legitimate property, but rather a state-assisted method of force to inhibit competition. So Patents == Bad. 🙂

  48. Patrick says:

    “As far as I’m concerned, I retain an interest in those rights taken from me…”

    Before I respond to this in detail, could you please clarify what rights exactly you’re referring to.

  49. Howard Lopez says:

    Patrick sez: “I’ll even take it a step further… the best approach to solve our economic woes is to repeal *all* regulation in *all* industries.”

    So people would then be free to drive on whatever side of the road they wanted? Come on now. For that, move to Somalia. We in the ‘civilized’ world understand that some rule sets have to be in place in order for society to function.

  50. EL Jefe says:

    Lopez, Patrick didn’t say to abandon all order. Liberty is not freedom from those social constructs (traffic signals) that are designed to allow participants (tax payers) use resources (roads) that they pay for in a safe manner. Government regulations and requirements that make it difficult if not impossible for true competitors to emerge For example, try reading some of the Federal Acquisition Regulations and the compliance that surrounds Cost Accounting Standards and other arcane chicanery that large businesses like Boeing, Northrop and others use to shut out competitors. When the State mandates by force of law with penalties including the loss of property and incarceration, certain prescribed actions that prohibit the free offer of goods and services, it is acting in the role of tyranny, arbitrarily setting up hurdles that protect incumbents and create monopolies. Try submitting a government proposal in anything other than MS Office format or PDF.

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