The Libertarian Case for Free Software

One of the most interesting trends in tech policy over the last decade has been the emergence of free software as a major force in the computer industry. For example, some of our readers probably use the Mozilla Firefox web browser, which was developed by a team of volunteers collaborating over the Internet. And in fact, you’re using free software right now! Cato’s own web servers use the Linux operating system and the Apache web server to serve up Cato’s website. Both Linux and Apache are free software, developed by volunteers and made available for free to the general public.

Free software has caught some flack among libertarians who fault it for its failure to rely on the traditional mechanisms of the market. In the latest edition of Cato’s TechKnowledge newsletter, I argue that this criticism is misguided.

Free software is precisely the kind of decentralized, voluntary cooperation that libertarians should be holding up as an alternative to the coercive power of the state. Free software is produced by volunteers donating their time, without a government program in sight. If that’s not a libertarian success story, I don’t know what is.

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.

In these arguments, progressives often claim they can use state power to create and nurture the rich social structures that typify civil society. But they’re wrong. State intervention almost always results in bureaucratized and politicized institutions that pit us against one another in bitter struggles. For example, a lot of progressives laud the potential of public schools to create more unified communities. But in practice, the opposite is true: our public schools have become one of the most divisive institutions in American society. They’ve sparked pitched battles over what to teach our children about sex, evolution, religion, and many other topics. The reality is that you can’t create civil society by government fiat.

So 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.