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.

Europeans Leading on Postal Privatization

While many European governments deserve criticism for their high tax rates and destructive welfare states, sometimes America is the nation that is lagging when it comes to free market reform.

Corporate tax rates are one example, since every European nation has a lower rate than America. Social Security reform is another area, since many European nations have funded systems based on personal accounts.

And, as the Wall Street Journal explains, the Europeans are also beating America when it comes to postal reform. Several nations already have eliminated government monopoly systems and others are heading in that direction, though backwards nations such as France are trying to block continent-wide liberalization:

Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and the U.K. have opened their postal markets completely; Germany and the Netherlands have said they plan to do so soon. Brussels began liberalization efforts back in 1997 and a 2002 law envisioned an open postal market by January 1, 2009.

Yet five years after that tentative deadline was set, and with 18 months still to go, the likes of France’s La Poste complain that they need more time to prepare. It’s unclear what exactly they will be able to accomplish in those extra two years that they couldn’t manage in the first dozen.

One safe bet is they’ll continue piling up easy profits to use in new businesses they’ve started. To take one example, La Poste, Deutsche Post and others have used the proceeds from their letters monopolies — a €90 billion business in Europe — to open banks.

In the meantime, consumers increasingly have to break the bank just to send a letter. In the 10 members of the EU-15 that haven’t completed or planned postal liberalization, the average stamp price rose by 7 European cents, or about 18%, between December 2001 and February 2007, according to data from the Free and Fair Post Initiative. In the five countries that have liberalized, the average price fell by 2 cents, or about 4%. Studies show that full market opening, including cross-border competition, could drive prices down by as much as 20% to 25%.

Earmarks

As annual spending bills wind their way through Congress this year, there are ongoing battles over earmarked funding for members’ pet projects.

To get a sense of what the battle is about, check out this newly released list of earmarks in the House Interior appropriations bill.

People scour such lists looking for embarrassing bridges to nowhere in Alaska and indoor rainforests in Iowa.

But the real issue is federalism, not earmarks. Many of these funding projects are not federal responsibilities at all. Look at all the local sewer facilities on the list under the EPA. Why can’t Seattle, Buffalo, and other cities fund their own toilet pipes?

Of course, they can. But the idea of federalism has disappeared from public discussion in an orgy of state and local lobbying of compliant Washington politicians. For history and analysis of this issue, see here

(Oh, wait a minute, take that back — my guy Jim Moran (D-VA) scored $700K to clean up Four Mile Run beside where I live in Northern Virginia. Nice job Jim! You’ve got my vote!) 

The Islamofascists’ Reign of Terror

The New York Times reports on American troops’ efforts to push Al Qaeda insurgents out of Baqaba, Iraq, and liberate residents from their strict rule:

The insurgents have imposed a strict Islamic creed, and some have even banned smoking, one resident told Capt. Jeff Noll, the commander of Company B of the First Battalion, 23rd Infantry, during his patrol through the neighborhood.

Banning smoking? President Bush is right — if we don’t stop them in Iraq, we’ll have to fight them in Manhattan, and Montgomery County, and San Francisco….

Voucher Use in Washington Wins Praise of Parents

 The headline for the New York Times article on the first review of the D.C. voucher program (summary, full report) is the headline I use here for this post. I’m pleasantly surprised, I have to say.

The NYT lead paragraph was almost correct as well, losing marks for lack of context. It mentions that parents who can choose a school for their children are much more satisfied, and that the choice students did not have consistently statistically significant academic gains. 

The vital context for this is that treatment effects from major education changes just aren’t expected in the first year. The NYT unfortunately also repeats the false claim that the evidence on voucher effects is not consistent. 

All scientific assessments of choice programs show positive gains, and nearly all of those studies show statistically significant gains. But it takes some time to get results, especially after a switch in schools that can be disruptive in various ways in the short-term. We have plenty of evidence that school choice improves student performance, and improves government schools as well.

The real news here is the immediate and very significant improvement in parental satisfaction across the board. The Washington Post, of course, buries the real news 14 paragraphs into the story.

In the one effect that should be expected in the first year, the voucher program has been a wild success. But that’s not the line the Post is helping school choice opponents push.

The Post prints a headline today that’s a lesson in how to slant the news while appearing on the surface to remain neutral. Here’s their headline: “Voucher Students Show Few Gains in First Year.” No one expected them to! Again, studies show choice has an effect, but it’s not magic fairy dust that makes students savants after the average of seven months they spent at a new school. And the numbers involved in this tiny program are, well, tiny. 

But the subtitle is the kicker, and combined it’s a despicable exercise in political activism masquerading as journalism; “D.C. Results Typical, Federal Study Says.” Here’s the trick; suggest, falsely, that it’s newsworthy that vouchers don’t immediately and massively increase student achievement, then suggest that choice programs typically don’t lead to improvements.

Chairman of the House education committee, George Miller (D-Calif.), echoed the Post and the NYT in a statement: “This report offers even more proof that private school vouchers won’t improve student achievement and are nothing more than a tired political gimmick.”

Miller should be ashamed of himself. And so should the education reporters who fail to give their readers context and crucial facts.

The D.C. voucher program is a life-line for low-income children. It’s sad to see their hometown paper helping handmaidens for the education-industrial complex in Congress try to cut that line to a better future. 

A Reason to be Against Donor Disclosure

Several interest groups (Public Citizen, Common Cause and Democracy 21) have lately been trying to persuade Congress to set up an independent ethics panel to police members. They also want Congress to allow outside groups (like themselves) to file ethics complaints with the panel.

A House task force now proposes to grant them their wish. However, the task force also requires any group filing an ethics complaint to the new panel to disclose its donors.

The interest groups are not amused. Craig Holman of Public Citizen told The Hill:  “you can imagine how upsetting this is to the donor community.”

I do not support an independent ethics panel. However, Holman is correct here. A group that filed a complaint would open its donors to retribution by the named member or by his party or allies in Congress. Disclosure might even discourage donors from supporting these interest groups, thereby burdening the contributors’ rights to association and speech.

In fact, I think we should extend Craig Holman’s point to other donors. People who contribute to the campaigns of challengers to incumbents should also not have to disclose their donations. After all, their contribution (like an ethics complaint) threatens a member of Congress and might well bring about retribution.

Sauces, gooses, ganders. If disclosure threatens the interests of the donors to certain influential interest groups that might irritate people in power, surely it also threatens those who contribute to challengers to incumbents. These donors, like your average Common Cause contributor, should also be free of the burden of revealing their political activities to those who might do them harm.

Laissez-Faire Health Care: Hilariously Misguided?

Ezra Klein offers a theory to explain my prediction that he will die a libertarian.  I’m going to keep my reasons for that prediction close to my vest.  But I will say that his recent comment about “intellectual disagreements” is not among them.

A few observations in response to his most recent post:

  1. A libertarian health policy would not prescribe $30,000 health insurance deductibles, or any size deductible. But Klein knows that.
  2. A patient on a gurney has no bargaining power. I know that.  Klein knows that. He knows that I know that. He also knows that most treatment settings are non-emergent. But let’s see if this straw man is really so easily razed. I’m guessing we could also agree that the patient has more bargaining power later, once his situation is no longer emergent. And I think we could likewise agree that a good way to protect the most vulnerable gurney-jockey from being gouged would be to make sure all gurney-jockeys care about the cost of their treatment (whether at the point of service or when they purchase their coverage).
  3. Best Buy and Sony are inapt. Think GEICO. Like Humana, GEICO is for-profit. Like Humana, GEICO takes its customers’ money and every claim paid is a loss to the company. Those incentives are the same.  Yet we don’t have an auto repair crisis. In fact, GEICO boasts on the radio that it pays claims so quickly, it steals other insurers’ customers. Why the difference?
  4. The key question is what type of system best reduces vulnerability. Is it a laissez-faire system, where (a) individuals would control the money now controlled by government and employers and (b) competition would ensure that insurers and providers could profit only by reducing others’ vulnerability?  Or is it a system with greater government involvement, where the link between self-interest and reducing others’ vulnerability is more attenuated?