Openness, Vegetarianism, and Lived Experiences

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.

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4 Responses to Openness, Vegetarianism, and Lived Experiences

  1. Mike says:

    I find the Apple vs. Open Source debate in the smartphone world amusing considering the huge open source win that was MacOS X. I remember bringing home my PowerBook G4, checking out my Linux-developed source code from cvs, and having it run flawlessly. Perl, Python, Apache, PHP, MySQL, git…it all runs. The open source action, as always, has been on the server side. And with the death of the Xserve they’re saying, by default, that open source on the server side won.

    But I do wish more application developers — on both the iOS AND Android platforms — would release their source code. The app store distribution model makes the risk of wide-spread piracy small and the increase in communal knowledge would be great.

  2. Rhayader says:

    It can be hard for people on both sides of this sort of debate to recognize the (somewhat) subtle distinction Tim makes here. I’ve run into this more than once discussing, of all things, Wal-Mart. The standard “progressive” take is that Wal-Mart is evil, and anyone not supporting as many restrictions on the company as possible is contributing to said evil. The “free market” guy says Wal Mart is doing nothing wrong, and anybody complaining about it is advocating counterproductive and immoral interference.

    But there are plenty of people who, for whatever reason, decide not to patronize Wal-Mart without questioning its right to do business however it chooses. There’s nothing anti-free-market about that form of anti-corporatism — it’s a freely made decision about spending one’s money. It’s exactly the sort of personal decision-making that free market advocates should celebrate, yet they (by which I mean “we”) so often vilify it.

  3. flamsmark says:

    Perhaps this is just an instance of the “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” If Roberts is so accustomed to the market-vs-regulation lens, perhaps he instinctively paints this issue with that brush because it’s easy. The openness-vs-restriction debate is nuanced. To one who is not intimately familiar with it, there may be a lot of intellectual effort to consider the problem neutrally.

  4. dullgeek says:

    Personally, I don’t think the moralistic point of view is why I prefer Android to iOS. I anticipate that with competition, there will be more choices available to me with Android than with iOS.

    Already that’s the case: I don’t like AT&T. But by choosing Android, I can pick the carrier that works better for me. Also, there are exactly 4 iOS based phones available in the market. One released every year for the last 4 years. I have lost count of how many android phones there are. Some of which are very low end. Some of which are very high end. And everything in between. There’s been at least 10 high profile android handsets released this year alone.

    I’m interested in Android because that level of choice means a much bigger network effect. And I benefit from that. Jerry Brito’s recent podcast with Joseph Isenbergh discussing open vs closed is really useful. Whatever advantages that MacOS had, were quickly surpassed in market share by Windows, which meant vastly more Windows applications than Mac apps. I suspect the same thing is going to happen in the mobile space, too.

    So my point of view is to ignore the moralistic arguments. Open is more useful. Open works better. Moralism really isn’t necessary to prove the point that proponents of openness wish to make.

    Additionally, I am concerned about making moral arguments about this sort of thing. Mainly because of this post by David Friedman. If “open vs closed” is a moral argument, what room is there for compromise? IMHO, I think this is, as Hazlett mentioned, a competition between what organizational model will work best. I think the open model will work best, but I could be wrong. If it turns out I am I’ll have no problem going to an iPhone. But those who find apple to be immoral would have difficulty making that switch.

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