Libertarians and Free Software

There’s an excellent article over at Cato about libertarians and Free Software, and more broadly about libertarian attitudes toward non-business forms of voluntary association:

Many libertarians are ambivalent about free software, and some are downright hostile. When the FSF recently released a new draft of the GPL, it got a chilly reception from some libertarian and free–market analysts. And for years various libertarian writers have argued that the free software model is unsustainable because developers will not continue giving away valuable software indefinitely. That is unfortunate because free software projects like Linux, Apache, and Firefox are in fact excellent illustrations of the power of libertarian ideas.


So why do we see so many libertarians criticizing such peaceful, but noncommercial, forms of social organization? Many are taking the bait offered by the subset of free software proponents who have adopted the rhetoric of the left to promote their goals. We’re used to arguing with these people, who advocate using the state to impose communal forms of organization. Libertarians criticize forcing employees to join unions, prohibiting organ donors from becoming organ sellers, and requiring children to attend government schools. In each case, we hold up markets, business, and money as the tools of voluntary alternatives to coercive government programs.

…libertarians are right to criticize policies aimed at accomplishing communal goals via coercive means. But some libertarians have gotten so used to defending the market against those who want to impose collectivism that they start criticizing purely voluntary efforts to organize people on more communal lines. They are forgetting that libertarianism is not necessarily about increasing the role of for–profit enterprise in every aspect of our lives. Commercial activity is one alternative to statism, and an extremely important one. But it’s just one possible mode of cooperation, and it’s not necessarily the best choice in every situation.

Indeed, free software is best seen as just one example of how people free to cooperate for mutual benefit create wealth for themselves and the rest of society. Sometimes they do so through business, by selling goods and services to customers or their labor to employers. But there are plenty of examples of voluntary cooperation that is not organized by traditional market mechanisms. In addition to free software, these include co–ops, private universities, think tanks, unions (providing membership is voluntary), churches, charities, sports teams, and many other groups. Libertarians should celebrate all of those institutions as alternatives to coercive government programs.

This is a really important point.  It’s bad enough when, as a libertarian, I feel pigeonholed as a knee-jerk pro-business advocate.  It’s worse when I see fellow libertarians actually acting out that stereotype, sneering at anything that smacks of communism or voluntary effort, even if there is no government intervention in sight.  This seems to be particularly prevalent among Republican-leaning libertarians and the Objectivist/Randroid crowd, where a certain cold war vintage red-scare mentality still seems to linger.  Thankfully, most net-savvy libertarians seem to have grasped the value of the new open-source culture in software, encyclopedias, music, etc.  But I still cringe every now and then when I hear someone going off on how Free Software is unsustainable and anti-market.

And yet, I see this tendency in myself sometimes as well.  When the people most associated with voluntary cooperatives are also the people most vocally in favor of expanded government regulation in everything from transportation to healthcare, it’s easy to lump it all together as all a part of an over-arching collectivist agenda.

It’s important to realize it wasn’t always this way.  When you read the writings of the 60s radicals, you realize that there was a time when the lines weren’t nearly so sharp between the socialists, the communists, the libertarians, the anarchists, and all the other -ists that made up the dynamic radical soup in which most modern non-mainstream political affiliations can claim their roots.  Back then the common thread, if there was one, was distrust of The Man – which included all forms of authority, government or otherwise – and a movement away from centralized authority.  A cause which, stated this broadly, any true libertarian would still agree with.

Like the article says, non-coercive association takes many forms, and as long as it is freely entered into a hippy food-coop is as valid – and as “libertarian” – as a for-profit business.  Free Software is one of the triumphs of liberty: creative individuals, using the leisure time afforded by the great wealth the (mostly) free market has given us to collaborate in dynamic, uncoordinated ways to build something better than any government mandate could dream up, let alone implement.

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  1. I don’t know: Libertatianism seems a logical conclusion of the GPL.
    The GPL is to software as chess is to games: what’s not to like about all of the pieces sitting in plain view, unless you’re a poker player, or enjoy being the pokee.

  2. Indeed, I’d rather have big business over big government, but both both can be quite bad.

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