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Feature:Open Source and Capitalism
NewsPosted by CmdrTaco on Monday August 24, @03:55AM
from the stuff-to-read dept.
Greg Perkins has written in with a nice paper on Open Source and Capitalism. A lot of people say that these ideas are oil and water, but click the link below and read what Greg has to say about it. Update Greg sent in response to the many comments. It's appended to the end of his original piece.

The following was written by Slashdot reader Greg Perkins

Open Source and Capitalism

Greg Perkins

Many people associate the idea of Open Source software with collectivism (socialism, communitarianism, or communism). This is understandable given the language and ideas of some of the movement's founders and prominent participants, and given the average political tendencies of college students (at least here in the US), who seem to form the core of the Open Source movement. That is of course no cause for concern. What troubles me is that I keep noticing an undercurrent of mistrust and even open hostility toward capitalism among Open Source fans. There is really no good reason for this, and I worry that it may grow into something truly dangerous to the movement.

I have seen it asked: how can capitalists enjoy and even embrace the Open Source ideal? Hidden in this question is the notion that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with Open Source, and that collectivism is not. While this is sure to be a touchy subject, I would like to try sharing the principled perspective of the Other Side.

In contrast to the above, I think that it is capitalism which is harmonious with Open Source, and that collectivism is incompatible; principled and thoughtful Open Source advocates should want to fully embrace capitalism for exactly the same reasons they love the idea of Open Source.

The (Societal) Elements of Open Source

I know that most people here have studied the meaning and mechanism of Open Source pretty carefully (consider the popularity of Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, for example). Let's focus briefly on the crucial societal elements which Open Source depends on for its success:

First, Open Source depends on the idea that cooperation is the preferred mode for dealing with one another, that cooperation and voluntary association to mutual benefit is the most effective, most productive, and, well, simply the Right Way for people to live in society, as contrasted against the use of fraud or physical force. Individual Open Source authors have the right to choose what code they will write and with whom they might like to work -- nobody is allowed to make them do it. When someone else makes that choice for you it is called slavery, and Open Source couldn't be as successful as it is on those terms; peoples' active, willing participation is required.

Second, Open Source depends on the idea of the individual human right to private property. Code wouldn't exist except by the effort of the people who build it -- it is by their choice and their sweat that their code even exists, and so they naturally have the right to decide how they will deploy their creation (otherwise, why should they bother to create it in the first place?). Linus himself expressed this spirit perfectly when he said, "he who writes the code gets to choose the license, and nobody else gets to complain." Open Source authors generously choose to apply licenses like the GPL to their code, thereby exercising their right to dictate how their effort may be used (and how it may not be used).

And finally, Open Source requires the protection of private property rights by a government. People need more than to merely feel justified in saying how they wish their code to be used (and not used) -- they must have confidence that their wishes will not be violated and the product of their best efforts taken and used at just anybody's whim. People can be secure in their cooperation with one another toward whatever ends each may choose when their right to private property is protected. Doing so essentially means barring the initiation of physical force and fraud from peoples' legitimate dealings, leaving them with nothing but cooperation and trade to mutual benefit. We can see this confidence manifest as authors willingly write Open Source code, or help someone write Open Source code: they do so because they trust that the license will be enforced, that someone else cannot take advantage of them and direct their efforts to ends they do not wish.

Another Look at Capitalism

Here's the point that might surprise some Open Source advocates: the above three crucial factors are precisely the same foundation that is required for true, unadulterated, laissez-faire capitalism.

Capitalism is a social system which respects and defends peoples' individual human rights, including the right to property. Further, capitalism is epitomized by cooperation, not by competition -- competition arises in the context of several participants trying to out-cooperate each other in a division-of-labor economy. As a tiny example, consider the handful of pencil companies competing in "cutthroat, dog-eat-dog" manner with each other for the chance to cooperate with you. Now think about how many other economic partners each of them works with in trying to bring you that pencil, from the people mining the graphite and harvesting the wood and rubber, to the transport systems which take them to the factories full of people, the manufacturing and chemical engineers who design the processes, the marketing and distribution channels, and the retailer who makes it easy for you to have that pencil with little or no effort. Thousands and thousands of people all peacefully work in concert to bring you a pencil (not to mention all those who cooperate with them, and those who cooperate with them, and so on). Multiply that by all the other economic values in your life that aren't as insignificant as a humble pencil, and you can see that fundamentally, capitalism means cooperation.

Full-blown capitalism is actually the separation of market and state. In particular, it is not the current American- or European-style mixed economy, with some people and businesses having the ability to use government to secure special advantage over others by lobbying for taxes, regulations, etc. To the extent that people and companies can use government to indirectly compel others in economic matters, capitalism and everything that makes it great is undercut. In the same way that we react to proposals to control the press or the church, in a true capitalist system everybody would simply laugh at someone trying to use the heavy hand of government to some economic advantage. We would just point to the constitutional clause banning any such interference, telling them, "Tough beans -- why don't you try to persuade the people in the marketplace that you are worth doing business with?"

Common Grounds

So if you cheer for the idea of Open Source, then please cheer for what makes Open Source work. If you do that, then you are also cheering for exactly what makes capitalism work, and everything that makes it such a powerful force for improving the human lot in the world.

As a libertarian and staunch capitalist, I get a true charge out of seeing an innovative entrepreneur or inventor serving himself by serving his fellow man in some new, clever, or powerful way. As a software engineer and rabid Open Source advocate, I get a true charge out of seeing the genius behind Stallman's GPL and the meteoric rise of Open Source and GNU/Linux. What makes these great to me is the same in both cases: people are able to be productive and peacefully reap the rewards of their hard work as they see fit.

Banning fraud and the initiation of force in our dealings with one another, and respecting people and their choices as individuals by protecting their property rights... These form a kind of systemic encouragement which brings out the very best within us -- and that is precisely what drives the raging success of both Open Source and capitalism.


Recommended Reading

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt is a classic, widely regarded as a wonderful (perhaps the best) first introduction to economics.

Capitalism: a Treatise on Economics by Dr. George Reisman is a lucid and encyclopedic account of capitalism and all things economic.

Also see the works of scholars from the Austrian school of economics, like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich A. Von Hayek (1974 Nobel in economics), or scholars from the Chicago school of economics, such as Milton Friedman (1976 Nobel in economics) or James Buchanan (1986 Nobel in economics).

A Followup from Greg Perkins


250 comments in a day -- what a wonderful firestorm of discussion!

Now, surely the more harsh commentators understand that in a short piece like my editorial, no author could even try to cover every anticipated objection or outright mistake in reading and reasoning that a minority of the audience might bring. That would simply bore or distract the majority of readers, perhaps to the point of missing the original thesis! I needed to leave such issues for the ensuing discussion.

And boy, I was pleasantly surprised by what happened! A horde of nimble-fing ered Slashdotters quickly jumped in after the first wave of commentary, answering and dissecting almost all of the incoming criticism quite nicely, relieving me of a lot of work -- thanks much, guys! :^)

However, there remain a couple of important themes that my quick-response comrades didn't address, and so I'll try to cover those here -- starting with the most important and surprising one.

What the Hay??

This trend really did surprise me. Here are a handful of examples where it happened -- notice what they have in common when I put them side-by-si de?

    People, it amazes me that some one can equate Linux, a shining example of sharing and cooperation, with capitalism, a system based on hoarding and selfishness. [Rodion Raskolnikov (), "POLL!! POLL!! POLL!!"]

    [The] only thing i can assume is that the author had only 1 thing in mind and that was to get people to join his movement. "Well if i can show that capitalism==GNU then fellow GNUers will join my organization or whatever". [Paul (paul@waterw.com), "Propaganda" ;]

    Open source functions on a gift economy. Sure, some of the behavior could be explained with free market principles ... but it is fundamentally different than the sort of role that the original essayist is trying to force it into. When I write code and I give it away, I get nothing but the satisfaction of writing interesting code, and the satisfaction that someone else is using it. That's not capitalism. [Anonymous Coward (), "Re: Back-asswards!"]

    It's always amusing to me to see some ultra captial weenies taking an idea like Open Source, which is effectively as socialistic as you can get in today's society falling all over themselves to cry out that it isn't, that capitalism and open source are exactly the same thing, yammer yammer yammer. [adr (jbfink@nospammy.entropy.muc .muohio.edu), "amusing"]

    Sheesh. Grow up. "Open Source" ... only superficially shares some ideas with economic theory. There's more to living than just money, and there are many more models of economy than just two. [Markus Fleck (!spam-fleck@informatik.uni-bonn.de), "Bla bla bla..."]

What these and so many other lines of criticism share is a clear misundersta nding of my thesis: they somehow latched onto the idea that I am identifying capitalist free markets and the Open Source movement as being the same thing, and then they went running down the rhetorical road on that false premise. Maybe I was not quite clear enough in the original piece, but I trust that if you look back up at my editorial with a little care, you will find that I never make such a claim. I was not even hoping for such an inference. Indeed, the summary in my conclusion seems quite clear about my hopes:

    So if you cheer for the idea of Open Source, then please cheer for what makes Open Source work. If you do that, then you are also cheering for exactly what makes capitalism work... These [common underpinnings] form a kind of systemic encouragement which brings out the very best within us -- and that is precisely what drives the raging success of both Open Source and capitalism.

Of course the Open Source movement and capitalist free markets are not one and the same, and I wouldn't want anyone to think so. My point is that they share a common foundation which fuels their tremendous effectiveness; these common underpinnings are themselves neither Open Source, nor capitalism -- but they foster both, and identifying them allows us to see and better understand the strengths of both Open Source and capitalism. This point leads naturally into my argument that capitalism is not fundamentally at odds with Open Source, a system which shares the same foundational underpinnings -- and so the mistrust and hostility I have been seeing directed at capitalism by some Open Source fans seems misplaced.

Open Source in the Here and Now

An interesting complaint surfaced regarding those underpinnings: some seem to think that it isn't legitimate that I rely on the fact that licenses like the GPL use the ideas of private property and the defense of individual rights, since by some interpretations of the Open Source Founders, its current form of is only accommodating our current circumstances and is not yet the Ideal Deal:

    The GPL exists (in this form) just because we live in a more or less capitalist world. Therefore it is adopted to the needs of this capitalist world. To conclude that because the GPL shows capitalistic elements, Open Source is capitalistic is IMHO an infinite loop. [Sebastian Schaffert (wastl@woanders.de), "Re: amusing", my underline]

    Open source matches the Marxist notion far better that the libertarian-ca pitalist notion, although it matches it only imperfectly. The GPL is very much a legal means of enforcing the kind of relationship that many believe ought to be natural law. It's a loophole, not the core of the philosophy. [vlax (vlax@yahoo.com) , "Sometimes, you just have to laugh", my underline]

But my observation is resting on the actual, stunning success of Open Source in today's world, on today's GPL terms, and in today's< political systems -- not in some dreamt-of, hoped-for future place that may be talked about in recommended readings at the FSF. If someone wishes to argue that some other prospective Open Source system might do as well as (or better than) what we have today, then I welcome their giving it a try. But even if someone somehow makes that argument work, it wouldn't itself do anything to disturb my thesis that the powerful and successful Open Source movement we have before us right now shares the very same foundation as capitalism.

There's Cooperation -- and then there's Cooperation

Several people expressed trouble with my saying that "fundamentally, capitalism means cooperation":

    This is one of those motherhood statements that means nothing when you think about it carefully. Consider some alternatives:

    • "fundamentally, communism means cooperation"
    • "fundamentally, anarchism means cooperation"
    • "fundamentally, fascism means cooperation"
    • "acephalous band-level hunter-gatherer groups are fundamentally dependent on cooperation"

    The truth is, human existence pretty much "means cooperation". [Danny Yee (danny@anatomy.usyd.edu.au), "capitalism means cooperation?"]

    I agree entirely with [the] gripe on the assertion "capitalism means cooperation". It is a null statement. What societal system could exist at all without some degree of cooperation. [The Famous Brett Watson (famous@nutters.org), 'Null statement: "capitalism means cooperation"' ]

Certainly there is a lot of cooperation among people in most any societal system. But capitalism, with its explicit ban on fraud and the initiation of force between people for the express purpose of leaving people with nothing but persuasion and freedom of association in their dealings with one another, is quite different. Communism, fascism, socialism, and even our mixed economy, etc., do not consistently demand that we behave as traders, acting to mutual benefit, persuading our neighbor to work with us. Non-capitalist systems legitimatimize the initiation of (often quite naked) force as a common and convenient means of dealing with one another: all you need is to get the political pull or the popular votes to have your way, and others must "cooperate&quo t; -- whether they ultimately benefit or not, and whether they want to or not.

The Slavery of Wages

Okay, one final, tiny point.

      When someone else makes that choice for you it is called slavery,< /I>

    Interesting comment coming from a capitalist.. So when my boss < I>says "do that" I am a slave, eh? You're basically defining capitalism as wage slavery.. not a very good start on an essay that is supposed to defend capitalism. [ir (mattc@nospam.pob ox.com), "Free Software"]

Notice that I said "someone else makes that choice", not just that "something forces your choice". Despite appearances , I was actually being pretty careful about it. When your boss says "do that", you clearly have a choice where a slave does not: you can quit. But you would starve, you say? Not to be too flip about it (well, maybe just a little :^), but it sounds as if your primary complaint of "injustice" is with reality -- not with your boss. He should have freedom of association just as you should, and you have no right to do business with him unless he wants to do business with you (othewise you are not being a trader, and he would be a slave).

I know of no capitalist who would argue that you have a right to be exempt from the laws of reality.

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