Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Open Source Movement

For my first Liberty Saturday post, I'd like to ask the question: Where does the Open Source Movement stand on the continuum between statism and liberty?

First, for the uninitiated: what is the Open Source Movement (OSM)?

The term "open source" originated in computer programming jargon. Software is made up of code. The source code is what underlies everything in a program. An open source program is one for which the programmers have made the source code publicly available, free of charge. Other programmers are largely free to mess with the code however they like, sometimes with the stipulation that they release their version of the program in an open source manner as well. The two most famous examples of open source programs are the operating system Linux and the web browser Firefox. The open source ethos has also been extended to other kinds of information like writings, music, images, and movies. Other popular open source ventures are Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the Creative Commons license under which many blogs are written, and the image sharing web site Flickr.

At first take, the OSM seems to have a collectivist, anti-private property tinge to it. Indeed many of its prominent adherents having something of the 60s in them. The Google founders harp on more about not being "evil" than profit models. And Tim O'Reilly, who promotes an OSM-related meme called Web 2.0, and is featured in this month's Wired, had his start as a "human consciousness" teacher in Northern California. But it's not that simple.

Consider their mode of collectivism. They do tend to favor cooperation over competition. And they favor open standards over owned standards. But that doesn't mean they're all calling for the government to enforce that cooperation and generate those standards. In fact I have yet to observe any prominent OSM pundit doing so. If a bunch of programmers across the world want to contribute their free time to building a better browser than Internet Explorer, there is nothing coercive about that. Liberty isn't about doing what you like as long as it makes a profit; it's about doing what you like, period.

Now consider their seeming stance against private property. Let's be straight that we're not talking about knocking over record stores, because they should be open source. We're talking about intellectual property. And more than a few libertarians think intellectual property is a completely artificial and unnecessary construction. My rule of thumb when deciding if liberty has been transgressed or not is violence. Can one really make a strong claim that getting paid for covering someone else's song without paying royalties is actually committing violence against the original artist? We have to be careful about extending the definition of violence too far to justify government action, because that is exactly what statists do when they define "labor exploitation" and "inequality" as forms of violence. Other libertarians encompass deceit in their set of justifications for government action. Under this conception, it should be illegal to pass off someone else's work as your own, thereby justifying intellectual property. But I think non-governmental systems of accountability, utilizing reputation and non-coercive rating agencies would naturally arise to combat such abuse, if governments would just get out of the way. Moreover, I think because consumers really don't want to get ripped off, there would be such a strong market demand for these systems, that the innovation stimulated by that demand would bring about accountability mechanisms much more rigorous than the unresponsive, inefficient government watchdogs we have now.

So on the whole, the Open Source Movement is much more friend than foe to liberty. And it makes sense when you consider the generation it has sprung from. Most techies are not baby boomers (in this, the fifty-something Tim O'Reilly is quite the exception). Most techies are still in their twenties and thirties. They know that the prosperity of their times did not come from the wars on poverty and social injustice of their parents, and that it has more to do with the high tech of the 90s, and perhaps even the high finance of the 80s "me" generation.

So until the Open Source Movement starts lobbying for Firefox subsidies or demanding that Wal-Mart be considered part of the "Creative Commons", consider me an OSM supporter.

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