Cord Blomquist on Free Software and Libertarianism

Thanks to Slashdot, my last post generated a ton of discussion. My favorite comment comes my friend and erstwhile co-blogger Cord Blomquist. I think it’s worth quoting the bulk of it:

I think the reason that most of the folks are against the free software movement is because they’re 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.

Quite so. I think part of the problem here is that non-programmers only see the tip of a very large iceberg. The average member of the free software community spends only a tiny fraction of his time thinking about the politics of free software. They spend the bulk of their time creating, using, and helping others use free software. Like any other large community, there’s a broad diversity of political views. Some people like Stallman and company, while others see him as an out-of-touch ideological zealot. But this doesn’t matter very much for working programmers, sysadmins, and the like because for most of them the primary reason to participate in the free software community is because it helps them do their jobs. The ideology is a secondary consideration, if they buy into it at all.

The problem is that if you don’t have first-hand experience with the free software community, then the debate between free software and proprietary software is going to seem like a wholly academic one. And that means you’re left to judge the merits of the two sides based entirely on their rhetorical and ideological appeal. And given that many of the free software movement’s spokespeople are hostile to free markets, the result is that a lot of non-geek libertarians wind up being hostile to the concept of free software even as most geeks with actual hands-on experience with free software are more favorable to the concept.

Part of the problem is that Moglen and Stallman don’t do a good job of distinguishing the values of the free software community from their own broader political views. A lot of what Moglen has to say about free software is broadly supported within the free software world, but he has a tendency to weave these valid points together with Marxist ideology that’s only tangentially related to the values of the free software community.

The way libertarians ought to respond to this is not to throw up our hands and conclude that the free software movement is the enemy. Rather, we need to do a better job of articulating the values of the free software movement in terms that are congenial to libertarians. There are a significant number of libertarian-leaning geeks in the free software movement—I’m sure they’d be grateful to see someone explaining how free software works without a lot of superfluous Marxist baggage.

And frankly, I don’t think it’s hard to explain free software in libertarian-friendly terms. After all, we’re talking about a private-sector community that’s producing immensely valuable public goods without a dime of taxpayer support. How can libertarians not get excited about that?

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7 Responses to Cord Blomquist on Free Software and Libertarianism

  1. Rhayader says:

    I’d venture that the majority of older, non-geek libertarians don’t know a thing about free software or the community’s heavyweights. I think their rejection stems from a fundamental misunderstanding much more than an objection to the rhetoric of Moglen and Stallman, whom they probably haven’t even heard of.

    In other words, non-techie libertarians don’t even get to the point of judging “the merits of the two sides based entirely on their rhetorical and ideological appeal.” They aren’t even aware of the rhetorical basis for the free software movement, and end up rejecting the idea because it sounds an awful lot like that farm compound their weird brother-in-law went to in the late 70s.

  2. They end up rejecting the idea because it sounds an awful lot like that farm compound their weird brother-in-law went to in the late 70s.

    Well yes, but I think that’s an indirect consequence of the influence of Stallman, Moglen, et al. If the free software movement had been started by a group of libertarians, they likely would have chosen a vocabulary to describe what they were doing that was more congenial to libertarians. And so even though your average 50-something libertarian intellectual wouldn’t have read his actual writings, the second- and third-hand accounts he does read would have made intuitive sense to him.

    The obvious example here is Jimmy Wales, who is a libertarian and has done a reasonable job of explaining how Wikipedia is based on libertarian-friendly bottom-up principles. I’m not aware of any prominent libertarian organizations that have written screeds attacking Wikipedia. I don’t think that’s because every libertarian has read Jimmy Wales’s work. But nor do I think it’s a complete coincidence that Wikipedia has a generally better reputation among libertarians than free software does.

  3. Asa Dotzler says:

    I’ve been working in FLOSS since 1998 and my experience has been that the FLOSS world is rife with libertarian (or at least leaning) participants.

    What problem are you trying to solve here? Just to push back against libertarians who misunderstand or misrepresent FLOSS? To bring more libertarians to FLOSS? To bring FLOSS into the libertarian movement’s toolkit?

  4. Rhayader says:

    And so even though your average 50-something libertarian intellectual wouldn’t have read his actual writings, the second- and third-hand accounts he does read would have made intuitive sense to him.

    Yeah good point Tim.

  5. Mike T says:

    What I find interesting about is that the fight between the GPL and BSD licenses is practically identical to the one between left and right libertarians over cultural issues. The GPL camp prohibits a large swath of behavior in the name of protecting and advancing FOSS goals, whereas the BSD license has no such baggage. Virtually any legal use is legitimate use, even creating a proprietary branch.

    While I have no problems with either, I tend to release my FOSS work under a BSD-like approach because its value-free approach is more closely aligned with my right-libertarian views on separating cultural goals from political goals.

  6. Gavin says:

    Simplified, we all want power to the people. Libertarians think the best way is to just leave it there, The opposing view is for the government to take it away and then give it back. As we know from all history, Part B in the collectivist plan always seems to be forgotten.

    Where is the State in OSS? In fact, being so diffuse, OSS is probably more immune to state co-option than large corporations.

  7. Don Marti says:

    “They spend the bulk of their time creating, using, and helping others use free software.”

    Actually, they probably work on a lot of proprietary and in-house software too.

    According to a 2003 survey, only 30.6% of free software developers have never worked at a proprietary software company: http://www.stanford.edu/group/floss-us/

    So the actual developers are comparing free and proprietary software from direct experience. Maybe it’s like talking about the “Flat Screwdriver Community” and the “Philips Screwdriver Community” when everyone’s toolbox has some of each.

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