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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.

Comments

While being a very big supporter of Open Source, I think that what you have written is simply a load of crap! I could have been a little more diplomatic but hey, I am an Liberterian and I don't care. Libertarianism is about excluding others! It's about doin'g what's best for you by you. Nobody else owns you that right and you don't own it to anybody else. It's about living for your self and your selfish reasons. Not for anything or anyone else. Libertarianism (and its parent philosophy - Objectivism) dictates that an individual chooses their own leaders. E.g. If you didn't vote for the government it is not your government to be subordinate to and you have no such obligation. If you signed something that gave control over your creations to someone else - sit down and shut up, they did what they wanted for their own benefit without forcing you! To say that you are a Libirterian is to say that you are a selfish big that cares about himself and himself only (somehow I don't think that this is what you meant). GPL is about protecting others and therefore can not be part of Libirterian philosophy since they don't care about others. Perhaps you should stop reading Wikipidea without a secondary source. And in regards to: "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." WTF! "evaluating a wide range of possible truths"? One can evaluate a range of theories - but there is only one truth. Truth is a fact and a fact is set in stone. That is, there is only one truth - not a range of them to make everybody happy, this is not primary school where we want to make everybody happy. Perhaps you should stop playing a backyard philosopher and maybe, just maybe do some research before you give prase to some idiot who thinks that there is a range of truths and we have the luxury of picking the most suitable on.

'There is only one truth'? Hardly; what a simplistic view. A particular assertion may be true or not (let's not get all Schrödingeresque), but it's quite possible to have to choose from an array of true assertions. Suppose I am thirsty, and before me I have two 4-oz cups of liquid. One contains distilled water, and the other contains sulphuric acid. I assert that if I drink the acid I will be harmed, and if I drink the water I will not. Both assertions are true. I can choose either alternative -- either truth.

Having to pick from a range of truths is often called choosing the lesser evil.

Someone picking a licence for her software gets to choose from an array, each of which will address her needs to some degree. No, there is no range of truths that makes everybody happy with all of them -- but neither is there One Truth that does so. Instead there's a range of truths that make many people happy on a case-by-case basis, depending upon which they choose.

To use your language, I'm willing to agree that facts are objective and can only be evaluated in a single way. For example, the fact of whether or not I have $1 in my pocket is an objectively testable fact. However, what I meant by truth, which may or may not agree with how you interpret the word, is that which can be argued from a collection of facts. For example, the fact of whether or not I earned the $1 in my pocket is a truth that can be argued, just as what that $1 actually represents can also be argued. To me, the truth is what comes from an attempt to piece facts together in the most cogent way. To me, there is not always one and only one way to put facts together, even if one makes the greatest effort to do so in completely good faith. The artifacts of these different attempts to piece together facts is what I call a range of truths. Certainly somebody who ignores a fact, hides a fact, or distorts a fact is going to create a different (and I would agree, more defective) truth than one who accounts for the fact correctly, but the world is full of such inconsistencies that if we rejected every truth that contained any incompleteness or inconsistency, there would be no truth at all!

I agree with Ubermonkey's comments on the truth, and I think Ms. Rehm's answer to "are you a liberal?" was intentionally evasive. The liberals I see and hear in the media and Congress are not "open to a wide range of truths" - they have well-established dogmas, and are quite happy to endorse the use of force to push their beliefs on others. To them, their good intentions are of supreme importance, while the actual results of their actions are relatively unimportant. But Ubermonkey's definition of libertarianism is rubbish. Libertarianism essentially is the rejection of initiation of force against others (responding to force with force (i.e., self-defense) is OK). A libertarian can be totally selfish, or totally caring, or somewhere in-between. AFAIK the philosophy doesn't mandate one attitude or the other. But a real libertarian will NOT use force (including the force of government) to extract charity from you at gunpoint in the name of "caring". A caring libertarian will give of her/himself, rather than pretending that government "cares", while a selfish libertarian will refuse to use that government to rob you to enrich him/herself. IMHO the truly selfish people will be voting for whichever party they think is more willing to rob you and give them the proceeds (cough ... AARP ... cough ... ADM ...) Perhaps Ubermonkey shoud stop play backyard political philosopher, and maybe do some research before he denigrates libertarianism again.

Interesting that Ubermonkey claims to be a libertarian, and then talks about libertarians as "them". It's pretty clear that he means to smear libertarianism.

Imagine certain knowledge concerning a new virus which became your knowledge. You own it. You now know that this virus will exterminate mankind in one year if nothing is done about it. Do you endeavor to profit from your knowledge? How?