Open Source as a Perpetual Motion Machine

by on August 9, 2006 · 70 comments

Over at the IPCentral blog, I had a lengthy and cordial discussion with Noel Le about the supposed contradiction between the rhetoric of open source and the support open source software receives from corporations. I started my first comment with “I don’t think I understand this critique,” and I’m still confused.

I won’t re-hash that debate, which you’re welcome to read for yourself if you’re interested, but I wanted to comment on the hostile attitude that some libertarian intellectuals seem to have toward open source software. Even libertarian luminaries like Richard Epstein have criticized open source software as “unsustainable,” and insinuated that they succeed only due to the largess of billion dollar software companies. Epstein seems to think that the open source movement is living on borrowed time, and once the folks subsidizing it (the government, tax-funded universities, IBM, the developers themselves, whoever) get tired of all the free riding, the party will come to a halt.

For anyone who’s actually used open source software, or who knows open source programmers, this critique doesn’t ring true. Most open source projects exist and thrive for years before corporations started taking notice of it, and only a small fraction of open source programmers are lucky enough to have employers who pay them to do it full time. Corporate support is obviously beneficial to open source efforts, but they would get along just fine without them.

Indeed, it seems to me that if you want to understand what drives open source software, the logical thing to do is to ask the people who are creating it. Their motivations haven’t exactly been a closely guarded secret. Open source programmers say they do what they do because they enjoy the intellectual challenge, because it helps them develop valuable skills, and because they enjoy impressing the community of their peers. So why don’t libertarians like Le and Epstein take them at their word?

I think the reason is that one of the recurrent themes of libertarianism is a suspicion of claims that things are “free,” based on the fact that “free” usually means “subsidized by the taxpayer.” “Free” health care, “free” education, “free” day care, “free” condoms, etc, are typically not, in fact, free, but are funded by taxes taken coercively from other Americans.

Closely related to our suspicion of “free” things is our general enthusiasm for commercial activities. For the most part, 20th-Century goods and services, which had non-trivial marginal costs, could be produced one of two ways: through government support or through private enterprise. Since those were almost always the only two options for the production of tangible goods, many libertarians came to see their opposition to government-provided services and their enthusiasm for commercially-produced products as two sides of the same coin.

In our discussion, Noel kept returning to the fact that open source software needed to have a “business model,” as though there was a problem with a software project that wasn’t primarily oriented toward turning a profit. But nothing about libertarian philosophy says that free enterprise is the best way to organize all productive activities. We view markets and private property as means to the more fundamental ends of liberty and prosperity, and as an alternative to organizing production through the coercive methods of the state.

We have no reason to quarrel with other private, non-coercive institutions–such as churches, families, or private universities–that achieve social cooperation without resorting to coercive methods. It would be absurd to object to the existence of families or churches on the grounds that such institutions lack a “business model.” Business models aren’t the point of those institutions, and no one participating in them expects to turn a profit from them. Precisely the same considerations apply to free software: although many individuals might find ways to profit from their participation in open source software (just as many people find valuable business contacts at church), that’s not why most open source projects were created, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Another example of the same phenomenon is this blog. None of us are paid to blog at TLF, and none of us (I hope) ever expect to become millionaires from the TLF IPO. Yet we generate gobs of content and give it away for free. Why? Because the indirect benefits we get from our participation is sufficient compensation. Personally, I think it’s great fun to have a few hundred smart people read what I write. And it also helps to raise my profile as a policy expert, which can improve my job prospects in the future. Given that any given post doesn’t cost me very much to produce each post, that’s sufficient compensation to make it worth my while to continue blogging.

There’s nothing mysterious, contradictory, or left-wing about people who give away blog content for free. And for precisely the same reasons, there’s nothing mysterious about programmers who give their software away for free. They (or, in the case of the few programmers who get paid to do it full time, their employers) have found that the indirect benefits of being open source software developers exceed the costs of doing so.

Le, Epstein, and company seem to treat open source software the way a physicist treats a new perpetual motion machine. They stare at it suspiciously, trying to figure out what the trick is. They know that a free lunch is impossible, so they feel compelled to come up with alternative explanations for how the apparently free lunch got there. Maybe big corporations are subsidizing it. Maybe tax-funded universities are footing the bill. Maybe open source developers were tricked into contributing by corporate propaganda.

But unlike the laws of physics, the laws of economics actually do allow free lunches–especially for intangible goods that can be reproduced at close to zero marginal cost. Open source software, like the posts on this blog, really are free. There’s no mystery here calling for an explanation, only a misunderstanding of libertarian theory.

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