TechKnowledge No. 105

Why Libertarians Should Celebrate Free Software

By Timothy B. Lee
June 22, 2007

In college I dated a left-of-center girl who liked to shop at the local grocery co-op rather than a commercial grocery store. We argued about it a lot. I’d point out the relative efficiencies of commercial grocery store organization. She’d stress fuzzier, more community-focused advantages: the sense of belonging, the superior treatment of workers, the closer connection between customers, employees, and management, and so on.

I still shop at a commercial grocery store. But I also think my criticism of the co-op was a little bit off base. There’s no reason that libertarians should object to shopping at a co-op. Some people simply believe that the intangible benefits of a less commercialized shopping experience are worth the costs. It’s a peaceful, voluntary form of social organization, and as long as no one is forced to shop there, there’s no reason libertarians should object.

Some libertarians seem to have developed a similar knee-jerk reaction against free software. Free software is produced through the cooperation of volunteers without anyone receiving exclusive rights in the finished product. This volunteerism has produced such widely used software as the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, and the Firefox web browser.

A lot of free software is licensed under the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License. The GPL is a “copyleft” license. The nickname may be provocative, but the GPL is an exercise of copyright control as much as any other license: it permits unlimited modification and redistribution of the software provided that any derivative software be made available under the same license.

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.

Libertarian critics of free software make the same mistake I made with regard to my girlfriend’s co-op: they assume that markets organized by for-profit businesses using money transactions are the fundamental values of the classical liberal tradition. To be sure, markets, private property, money, and business are important - essential in many areas - but the fundamental concern of libertarianism is with liberty and the danger to liberty posed by state power.

There’s no reason that free software should make libertarians uneasy. To the contrary, it 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.

Of course, this doesn’t answer the specific criticism that free software is unsustainable because contributors have insufficient incentive to participate. That might be true, but I doubt it. People contribute to free software for all sorts of reasons, but the most fundamental reason is that they enjoy it.

This isn’t as strange as it might seem. We’ve all heard of the garage band that toils away for years without ever making a big break. More recently, we’ve seen millions of people start blogs, sometimes writing hundreds of thousands of words and entertaining thousands, without getting a penny for their efforts.

Of course, many free software developers hope that contributing to a free software project will help advance their careers, just as many bloggers and musicians hope to become professional writers and rock stars. But they wouldn’t put so much time into it if they didn’t love what they were doing. And as long as they find the activity to be its own reward, there’s no reason to worry that it is unsustainable.

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.

Timothy B. Lee is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.