Can Libertarians use proprietary software?

So recently I’ve been pondering libertarianism and software choices.

What is Libertarianism?

Libertarianism is a political and economic philosophy which, essentially, consists of the views that individual humans should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others, and the only function of a government is to defend people’s freedoms and resolve contract disputes. Libertarians are passionate believers in laissez-faire capitalism, as they see this as the only truly fair and free economic system – regulated capitalism and socialism are seen as immoral infringements on people’s freedom to work.

To this end, libertarians are almost unconditionally in favour of deregulation and privatisation, partly because they believe that government regulation and provision of services by government are immoral in and of themselves, but also partly on the basis that private companies can do a better job than the government due to the need for profits forcing them to be more efficient. This makes sense, but doesn’t tell the whole story. A company can increase profits by methods other than improved quality of product, such as by reducing workers’ wages, selling shoddy products that undercut the competition (thus potentially reducing profit margins but making it up on volume), and by spreading false or unflattering information about the competition to put people off buying it, such as IBM did in the 70s.

This worldview tends to lead to the conclusion that the biggest and most successful companies are the best – after all, if a competitor was able to make a superior product, people would have bought that instead (the idea that there are factors involved in a product’s success other than pure price and quality doesn’t seem to enter into the libertarian mind). From this, it follows that wealth is something to be celebrated and honoured, apparently because every rich person earned their money by starting at the bottom and working their way up in order to be promoted on the basis of merit. Libertarians also automatically assume that a product or service produced by the governmen is automatically inferior to one produced by a private company due to a government department not having a profit motive (for an example of how disastrous this attitude can be in practice, see the section on Iraq in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine).

While libertarianism is a nice idea, it ignores human nature. The most successful people tend to be psychopathic to some extent; furthermore, the children of richer parents have a head start on the children of poorer parents, allowing them to skip working in the lower rungs of society and go straight to the middle and upper echelons. The long-term result of this is a situation where a rich elite dominate the poor majority by way of access to far more resources than the poorer can reasonably acquire – in other words, a medieval aristocracy, with the new-aristocrats being nearly above the law due to the minimal role of government.

As you can see, I am not a fan of libertarianism. However, I do respect libertarians’ insistence on freedom and individual rights, and I think that aspects of the libertarian worldview are worthy of adopting.

But enough about that, let’s talk about software.

Software can be broadly divided into two classes. One class is known as proprietary software. In essence, this is software which is ordinarily distributed in pre-compile binary form without source code, and which you are not allowed to modify. In general, the license under which proprietary software is distributed places a limit on the number of machine on which it can be installed and does not allow copying or redistribution (but shareware is a notable exception). Examples of proprietary software include the WindowsMac, and Amiga operating systems; Microsoft Office and iWork, office suites; Internet ExplorerSafari, and Chrome web browsers; and the majority of games.

Proprietary software first appeared in 1969. Up to then, computer manufacturers commonly included software and source code with their hardware, and software was viewed as something you did with the computer rather than a thing in and of itself; thus, programmers would frequently modify the code they were given and freely shared their modifications and original programmes with each other.

However, in the late 60s, the rise of IBM prompted the US government to bring antitrust suit against it, accusing it of engaging in monopolistic practices (the case was ultimately thrown out in 1982). In order to appear less monopolistic, IBM began unbundling its software from its hardware and charging seperately for them – thus, it appeared to be giving its customers a choice as to who they got their programmes from. In a masterstroke of money grubbage, they began compiling the software themselves and distributing it in binary form, with license agreements banning the study, decompilation, or reverse engineering thereof. This meant that if a customer wanted a copy of a programme, they had to buy it from IBM – there was no option to get someone to make a copy of it. Also, if they wanted it modified, they had to call in an IBM coder.

Other companies got the idea, and started distributing proprietary software of their own. In the 70s, a young hacker by the name of Richard Stallman was working at the DARPA-funded MIT AI lab. When proprietary software began to appear at MIT, Stallman was aghast, and denounced as immoral the idea of a company taking away the user’s right to alter the software they use. In 1983, Stallman started the GNU project to create an operating system composed entirely of software which the user would be free to modify and redistribute as they saw fit. To this end, Stallman drafted the GNU General Public License under which this software would be released; this license requires that the recipient be given the right to modfiy and redistribute the software however they please.

This type of software goes by two different names. Stallman refers to it as free software. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of the English language, this leads to confusion. Upon hearing the term, people quite reasonably assume it means software that doesn’t cost any money. However, Stallman uses free in the sense of freedom – that is, you are free to do precisely what you like with the software, including selling it for money.

Free software is also commonly known as open source, a term coined by Eric Raymond which avoids the ambiguity of free software and which is more attractive to businesses. Which term one prefers has more to do with philosophy than licensing terms. Those who call it open source tend to emphasise practical benefits such as lower cost, higher quality, and the flexibility that comes from being able to easily modify the code, while those who say free software consider proprietary software to be immoral in and of itself, with other drawbacks being at of at most secondary importance. There are also others who don’t want to get involved in this dispute who call it FOSS, an acronym for free and open source software; Stallman and Raymond both consider this to be an acceptable compromise. 

Really, there are two commonly-used metrics for what makes something FOSS. The Free Software Definition is the simplest, consisting of  four freedoms (paraphrased slightly):

0)  The freedom to run the software for any purpose.

1) The freedom to study the software and modify it to suit yout needs.

2) The freedom to copy the software so you can help your neighbout.

3) The freedom to redistribute your modified version so everybody can benefit from your improvements.

The Debian Free Software Guidelines, on which the Open Source Definition is based, are somewhat longer, consisting of 10 conditions (paraphrased):

1)  Free (as in freedom) redistribution

2) Source code must be included or made readily available

3) Modification must be allowed

4) If modification is not allowed, patch files must be included that allow the software to be modified at build time.

5) No discrimination against users

6) No restrictions on use

7) License must apply to all modified versions

8) License must not be specific to one project or system

9) License must not contaminate other software

10) License must be technology-neutral (OSD only)

As well as the GPL, other popular FOSS license include the BSD-style licenses, the Apache License, and the Mozilla Public License. Popular free software includes the GNU/LinuxBSD, and AROS operating systems; LibreOffice and Calligra office suites; Blender 3D modelling programme; FirefoxChromium, and Konqueror web browsers; and Thunderbird and Evolution email clients.

When libertarians meet free software

So, there are liberatrians, whose overriding concern is freedom. When a libertarian obtains some software, they can choose a free or a proprietary programme.

I have to wonder if the use of proprietary software is compatible with libertarianism. After all, if you obtain and use a proprietary programme, you waive your right to modify it to better suit your needs. Now, one might reasonable argue that they have no idea how to modify a programme, so this doesn’t affect them. But that’s not the point. Freedom means you can do something if you choose, regardless of whether you choose to exercise that choice or not.

To make an analogy, suppose two companies make cars. SpeedyCo’s cars are very well designed and engineered, but are physically locked down with special screws manfactured by SpeedyCo – thus, only SpeedyCo mechanics are able to service them. CoolCar Ltd doesn’t lock down the car, so each driver can repair and modify it to the best of their ability. And if they don’t have the knowledge, time, and inclination to do so, they can always take it to a garage and pay someone else to service it. If for one would mush rather own a CoolCar car.

As you have probably guessed, SpeedyCo is a metaphor for proprietary software, while CoolCar Ltd represents free software. It seems to me that free software, with its guarantee of freedom, is a natural fit for the libertarian worldview.

The other common objection to this is that obtaining proprietary software is the user’s own free choice, and that insisting all software be free reduces choice by banning the likes of PhotoShop. For the first argument, sure, you can freely choose proprietary software, just as you can freely choose to work for a company that, say, forbids you from saying good things about My Little Pony. Even if you dislike My Little Pony, I imagine you wouldn’t consider such a restriction on free speech to be terribly moral.

As for the argument that insisting on free software reduces choice, well, that’s true in today’s world due to the preponderance of proprietary software. However, nobody who advocates for free software suggests that Photoshop should be abolished – rather, they would like Photoshop to keep on going, under a free software license.

And that, dear friends, is why I think libertarians compromise their morality by using proprietary software.

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