Why Libertarians Should Celebrate Free Software


In college I dated a left-of-center girl who liked to shop atthe local grocery co-op rather than a commercial grocery store. Weargued about it a lot. I'd point out the relative efficiencies ofcommercial grocery store organization. She'd stress fuzzier, morecommunity-focused advantages: the sense of belonging, the superiortreatment 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 mycriticism of the co-op was a little bit off base. There's no reasonthat libertarians should object to shopping at a co-op. Some peoplesimply believe that the intangible benefits of a lesscommercialized shopping experience are worth the costs. It's apeaceful, voluntary form of social organization, and as long as noone is forced to shop there, there's no reason libertarians shouldobject.

Some libertarians seem to have developed a similar knee-jerkreaction against free software. Free software is produced throughthe cooperation of volunteers without anyone receiving exclusiverights in the finished product. This volunteerism has produced suchwidely used software as the Linux operating system, the Apache webserver, and the Firefox web browser.

A lot of free software is licensed under the Free SoftwareFoundation's General Public License. The GPL is a "copyleft"license. The nickname may be provocative, but the GPL is anexercise of copyright control as much as any other license: itpermits unlimited modification and redistribution of the softwareprovided that any derivative software be made available under thesame license.

Many libertarians are ambivalent about free software, and someare downright hostile. When the FSF recently released a new draft of the GPL, it got a chilly reception from some libertarian and free-marketanalysts. And for years various libertarian writers have argued that the free software model isunsustainable because developers will not continue giving awayvaluable software indefinitely. That is unfortunate because freesoftware projects like Linux, Apache, and Firefox are in factexcellent illustrations of the power of libertarian ideas.

Libertarian critics of free software make the same mistake Imade with regard to my girlfriend's co-op: they assume that marketsorganized by for-profit businesses using money transactions are thefundamental 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 oflibertarianism is with liberty and the danger to liberty posed bystate power.

There's no reason that free software should make libertariansuneasy. To the contrary, it is precisely the kind of decentralized,voluntary cooperation that libertarians should be holding up as analternative to the coercive power of the state. Free software isproduced by volunteers donating their time, without a governmentprogram in sight. If that's not a libertarian success story, Idon't know what is.

So why do we see so many libertarians criticizing such peaceful,but noncommercial, forms of social organization? Many are takingthe bait offered by the subset of free software proponents who haveadopted the rhetoric of the left to promote their goals. We're usedto arguing with these people, who advocate using the state toimpose communal forms of organization. Libertarians criticizeforcingemployees to join unions, prohibiting organdonors from becoming organ sellers, and requiringchildren to attend government schools. In each case, we hold upmarkets, business, and money as the tools of voluntary alternativesto coercive government programs.

In these arguments, progressives often claim they can use statepower to create and nurture the rich social structures that typifycivil society. But they're wrong. State intervention almost alwaysresults in bureaucratized and politicized institutions that pit usagainst one another in bitter struggles. For example, a lot ofprogressives laud the potential of public schools to create moreunified communities. But in practice, the opposite is true:our public schoolshave become one of the most divisive institutions in Americansociety. They've sparked pitched battles over what to teach ourchildren about sex, evolution, religion, and many other topics. Thereality is that you can't create civil society by governmentfiat.

So libertarians are right to criticize policies aimed ataccomplishing communal goals via coercive means. But somelibertarians have gotten so used to defending the market againstthose who want to impose collectivism that they start criticizingpurely voluntary efforts to organize people on more communal lines.They are forgetting that libertarianism is not necessarily aboutincreasing the role of for-profit enterprise in every aspect of ourlives. Commercial activity is one alternative to statism, and anextremely important one. But it's just one possible mode ofcooperation, and it's not necessarily the best choice in everysituation.

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

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

Of course, many free software developers hope that contributingto a free software project will help advance their careers, just asmany bloggers and musicians hope to become professional writers androck stars. But they wouldn't put so much time into it if theydidn't love what they were doing. And as long as they find theactivity to be its own reward, there's no reason to worry that itis unsustainable.

Indeed, free software is best seen as just one example of howpeople free to cooperate for mutual benefit create wealth forthemselves and the rest of society. Sometimes they do so throughbusiness, by selling goods and services to customers or their laborto employers. But there are plenty of examples of voluntarycooperation that is not organized by traditional market mechanisms.In addition to free software, these include co-ops, privateuniversities, think tanks, unions (providing membership isvoluntary), churches, charities, sports teams, and many othergroups. Libertarians should celebrate all of those institutions asalternatives to coercive government programs.