Last week, Russ Roberts had libertarian tech policy scholar Tom Hazlett on his excellent EconTalk podcast to talk about the Google-vs-Apple battle in the mobile phone market, and the implications for open and closed platforms. One of my favorite things about the EconTalk is that when Roberts and a guest agree about a topic, he usually tries pretty hard to provide a fair and sympathetic account of the “other side,” so that listeners can get a realistic idea of the shape of debate and decide for themselves which side is right. He didn’t do that here. Instead, Hazlett repeatedly heaped scorn on the pro-openness side of the debate, and while Roberts was more diplomatic, he didn’t really make any effort to explain why the pro-openness side thinks as it does, even for the sake of argument.
I jumped into the comment section and pointed this out to him, and it became clear that Roberts is less hostile to the pro-openness position than genuinely unfamiliar with it. After an hour in which both he and his guest speculated that pro-openness advocates were elitist, irrational, religious, and so forth, he seemed surprised by my suggestion that there was “another side” he should have been more respectful to. He seems to believe that there’s just two sides: a pro-market side that believes that “the market will sort that out if we let it,” and a pro-regulation side that wants the government to mandate the use of open technologies. The possibility that the open-vs-closed debate might be orthogonal to the free-markets-vs-regulation debate—that one can be pro-openness and anti-regulation—seemed to be a surprise to him, despite the fact that he’s had guests like that on his show in the past.
I asked Jerry Brito for his take, and he suggested an analogy that I think might help shed some light on the issue. Consider vegetarians. People become vegetarians for a wide variety of reasons, but the most common reason in the US is probably a concern for animal welfare. The Roberts/Hazlett discussion reminded me a bit of a debate over food policy between two people who have never seen a farm animal. The debate might focus on whether meat tastes better than non-meat alternatives, and speculate on why people become vegetarians: maybe they’re elitist? Maybe men become vegetarians to score with vegetarian women? Maybe they hate capitalist factory farms?
If you ask an actual vegetarian, you’ll find that most vegetarians aren’t just concerned with the intrinsic qualities of meat—whether it “works” at nourishing people—but with the effect of meat-eating on animals. But if you’ve never seen a farm animal, this argument will always have a pie-in-the-sky vibe to it. Similarly, if you’ve never developed software, pro-openness arguments will seem vague and esoteric. It requires a leap of imagination to understand someone else’s concerns without a common frame of reference. And if you’re primed to view those concerns in terms of an existing ideological debate, such as markets vs. regulation, you’re even less likely to take those concerns seriously.
Partisans for openness don’t necessarily consider a Droid a better phone than an iPhone in the narrow sense that it has a better UI or more useful applications. (To the contrary, many lament that Apple is ahead on this score) Rather, they believe that buying an iPhone helps to shape the technology marketplace in ways that have negative long-term consequences for society. They believe that open technologies better promote values like free expression, individual autonomy, privacy, and human creativity.
This argument isn’t about government regulation. There are plenty of libertarian vegetarians who choose not to eat meat but don’t advocate making meat-eating illegal. To say that “the market will sort out” whether to eat meat is to entirely miss the point, because the point of vegetarianism is to change peoples’ preferences through persuasion, not merely to satisfy their existing preferences more effectively. By the same token, the goal of many openness advocates isn’t to make proprietary phones illegal, but rather to convince people to voluntarily buy open products because doing so provides large benefits for society at large. Libertarians don’t have to agree with that goal, but there’s no reason for them to be hostile to it.
Update: I wrote this post before reading this excellent article Roberts wrote about Linux in 2003. Roberts is clearly familiar with at least some of the argument for openness. Which makes the tone of his Hazlett podcast all the more puzzling. He seems to understand the practical advantages of the free software model, but not the ideology that motivates many of the volunteers to devote so many hours to the project. But the two can’t really be separated. The free software movement would be vastly less successful if not for the ideologically-motivated actions of Richard Stallman, Jeremy Allison, and dozens of others. If you think free software projects like Linux are a glorious thing, then you should take seriously the values and concerns of the people behind them. Especially if your podcast is published using an Apache web server.
Update 2: I endorse Jerry’s take on this subject.