What I Learned from the Libertarians

Earlier this summer I attended an event featuring Diane Rehm, host of The Diane Rehm Show. At a time when the radio talk show format seems to have reached a point where the only way to be heard is to yell, and where the outrageous behavior of the host becomes news far more important than the subjects they cover, Diane Rehm steadfastly refuses to be drawn into the fray. Her show is a forum of respect for ideas and the people who choose to express those ideas. The most aggressive thing I’ve ever heard her say in response to a guest is “I’m sorry Mr. So-and-so, but that’s just not true.” And of course, she’s right: when Mr. So-and-so tries to jam the air with counter-factual information, she and her line of producers are vigilant, but not disrespectful. The result has been a remarkable opportunity to hear ideas discussed and developed rather than packaged, ram-rodded, or pilloried.

During the Q&A session of her talk at the event, somebody asked if she considered herself a liberal. The question drew some applause, but her response drew a standing ovation. She said words to the effect that “if you define liberal as somebody who is open to evaluating a wide range of possible truths, somebody who is willing to consider and discuss this range to find which truths are the most applicable, the most useful in helping to expand or enrich understanding, then, yes, I am a liberal.” This is an important lemma to the lesson of the Libertarians:

The concept of freedom includes the concept that one is free to choose what one believes, and is free to continually evaluate such choices as facts and understanding develop.

The straw man argument against this proposition is that absolutely nothing is certain, that everything is arbitrary, that truth is entirely discretionary, that no fixed point of agreement is logically valid, and that the implications of such an interpretation is so absurd that the entire proposition must be rejected. But the purpose of the lemma is not to define truth, but rather to define freedom.

What I learned from the Libertarians was that the best way to protect oneself from a government of the people is to design the rules with the assumption that, from time to time, even criminals will be elected to government. Abraham Lincoln famously said “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” The system of checks and balances designed into the US constitution assumes that some of the people will be fooled all of the time and it allows for the possibility that all of the people will be fooled some of the time. These checks and balances cannot prevent the rise of a criminal to government, but they can slow that rise to a crawl, and they can make it devilishly difficult to maintain a criminal government for very long. (And to the extent that this is not true, we should look at how to make the design more secure, not exclusively on how to deal with the criminals as exceptional cases.)

If we take the Wikipedia definition of libertarian at face value, which is that the fundamental proposition of their political philosophy depends upon absolute ownership of property, and we consider how many libertarian-leaning developers value the GNU General Public License above all other licenses for software, we realize that what the GNU General Public License promises is continued rights to read, modify, share, and run software even when the owners of such software cannot be trusted. In other words, once a libertarian decides to invest in the ownership of understanding some software, such ownership cannot be denied by counter-claims of other assertions of property. And this is precisely the type of check-and-balance that gives us the courage to choose such software over other software for long-term investment.

I myself became a convert to this libertarian perspective when the fruits of my labor, which I sold for a wage, were placed beyond my reach and beyond the reach of anybody else by a company whose shareholders lacked the ability and/or interest in exploiting that work themselves. It’s true that when I was 22 years old, I agreed to a bargain that allowed others to exclude me from what I had created. But when I was 23, I began to understand how the GPL could protect my rights from neglect (by guaranteeing my continuing rights to read, modify, and share software independently of the owner’s desire to do likewise). And by the time I was 25, I understood how the GPL could also protect my rights from domination as well (by denying others the right to deny me of my rights). With that understanding, I found some like-minded libertarians and together we started the world’s first company based on free software.

But the company we founded did not trade exclusively in GPL-covered software. Right from the start, we used, distributed, and supported software under the MIT license, the BSD license, and other licenses that all come to be known as open source licenses. We judged these licenses as “safe” for our business because we believed that even if the original copyright holders became our adversaries (as business competitors or simply as legal antagonists), our rights would remain intact. Even then we were liberal libertarians.

Whether or not you consider yourself to have libertarian tendencies, you should ask yourself this: to the extent that you consider your rights to use, modify, share, and distribute software important to you (whether for personal or commercial reasons), how well are you protected against the strategic behavior of any of the rights-holders of the software upon which you depend? If your favorite software supplier were to suddenly become evil (in any way you choose to define evil), could you divorce yourself from that relationship and still enjoy your software? Or would you have to give up some of your software as part of that divorce? Would you have to give up personal freedoms or commercial opportunities because of such strategic behavior? The freedom to fork is a crucial check and balance which, even when exercised, leaves one more whole than any other convention I have studied.

The Open Source Definition is an attempt to define properties of software licenses that not only encourage a more efficient and innovative software development model, but also a powerful notion of rights that transcend a single actor’s ability to game the system with strategic behavior. As the OSI continues to evaluate licenses for approval, as we continue to categorize licenses to diminish risks of proliferation (an unintended consequence that could itself become a device of strategic behavior), and as we continue to act as stewards of the OSD, you should evaluate for yourself whether the definitions, processes, and decisions we’ve created are sufficient to protect the community from adverse take-over. Your vigilance, your participation on our mailing lists, your voice on our blogs and in our board meetings is vital to protecting your interests as more and more people take an interest in open source–even those who might be considered criminal. And please: be liberal, both in your participation and in your willingness to consider new ideas, and be respectful. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth.