Roughly ten years ago I obtained and installed my first copy of Red Hat Fedora Linux. It was during that same time-frame that I officially became a Libertarian. Since then I have read many opinion pieces comparing Linux to both Libertarianism and Communism. In a way, I think it is both.
First let’s consider the origins of Linux. Back in the early 1980’s a long-time Unix programmer named Richard Stallman left MIT and began the GNU project and later the Free Software Foundation. He and his team began compiling (pun intended) the various software components of an operating system. The impetus behind their work was the belief that software source code should be freely available to all users so that they may make alterations to suit their specific needs. These changes would then be freely published so that others could benefit and possibly further refine the system.
In the early 1990’s, a Finnish graduate student named Linus Torvalds decided that he wanted to program a Unix/Minix like operating system for his Intel based 386 IBM PC. By this time, the aforementioned GNU project had assembled many of the components necessary, however, they were still lacking a working kernel. Torvalds set about this programing task. He plopped his kernel in the midst of the GNU components, and voila. Linux was born.
Since then, both Stallman and Torvalds have remained active in the development community as many, many others have joined as well. Today, we have many different distributions (i.e. flavors) of Linux from which to choose. Distributions that run on everything from personal computers and servers, to cellphones, routers and just about everything in between. On top of Linux has sprouted hundreds of software projects aimed at providing applications to users that follow these same principles. FOSS, or Free & Open Source Software is the acronym used to describe this model of development and distribution.
So what revelations regarding Libertarianism and Communism can be gleaned from the examination of the Linux community?
Before we can proceed with that analysis, there is one entrenched political teaching of which we must dispose. This is the notion that the political spectrum is a straight line with reactionary fascism on the right and radical communism on the left. Using this school of thought, there should be dramatic differences between the likes of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. However, I think most people would agree that the two were essentially totalitarian dictators that tended to have more in common than not.
If the traditional left/right spectrum is a flawed, then what is a better representation? I think a circle is better suited to political analysis. The top of the circle being a state of highly decentralized government and the bottom being one of highly centralized government.
The very top of the circle is the embodiment of what people like Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the United States. Like a circus elephant balancing itself on top of a giant ball, this approach takes great individual effort keep from losing ones balance and falling off, or in this case, sliding down to the bottom. The trip to the bottom of the circle is easy. There will always be people looking to grab your rights and property in exchange for the security or service they are offering. It doesn’t matter if these people are from the right or left or whether they’re Communist, Fascist or Socialist. The end result is always the same. Residence at the bottom of the circle under a highly centralized, oppressive totalitarian regime.
Now as we consider the nature of Linux, I think it is fairly easy to see that it is a highly decentralized approach to a common goal. But how can it have communist tendencies at the same time? I found the answer in a statement made by Walter Block of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Dr. Block recalled meeting a young lady who proudly announced to him that she was a Socialist. He responded to her statement with a simple question. “Are you a coercive or voluntary socialist?”
In that answer lies the explanation of Linux’s communist roots. All of the various software projects being developed within the FOSS movement are being done so in voluntary communities. Think of the the old notion of northern California hippie communes as opposed to the traditional coercive Soviet style regime. Any developer of a given application (commune) is not only free to leave a project, they are also free to “fork” a project. This is where they use the same code being developed by the first project to form their own second project and take it in another direction. Every person has the freedom to move from commune to commune, or even start their own, since no one person or group owns the source code.
This is what we should be pursuing as a political philosophy in the United States. Instead of putting all of our eggs into the single basket of the federal government and hoping that it has the smartest people in the world who are capable of running entire economies; we should be putting our hopes in the American people scattered all over the nation. Let state and local governments experiment with what’s best for them in their specific circumstances. I can guarantee you that what works best in Manhattan, NY will not work best in Manhattan, MT.
Eric Raymond is an open source developer who wrote an essay in the late 1990’s entitled, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” In that treatise he coined what he calls “Linus’ Law.” It states: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” This is the true power behind Linux and FOSS. But in government today we have a mere 600 representatives cloistered in the “closed” cathedrals of Washington writing and interpreting verbose unintelligible laws that are fraught with unintended consequences and corruption. Our only hope is to open up the system and decentralize the solutions.
Richard Stallman is famous for describing free software as being “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” In a time when our government is fiscally broke and rapidly becoming more centralized, we could all do with a little more free as freedom and a little less free as in handouts, bailouts and benefits.
You can find more pieces like this at Trybuntu.com.