Freedom and Order


I’m a very strange computer scientist. See, I’m minoring in Government. I tell people that it’s because I find both systems to be orderly. I think to some extent, that is very true. But there is a second reason, and both reasons play equally into today’s topic. The second reason is that both systems allow people to protect and exercise their freedoms.

Think about that for a moment: While government is certainly a form of order, it also allows people to be *dis*orderly, so long as they do it within the bounds of the law.

In that way, I think, government is similar to the digital world. I often find myself frustrated by compilers, by errors in programs, and by limitations of protocols (same-origin policy, I’m looking at you), but despite those limitations to the power of computers, these machines allow an entire class of people to be freer than they would have otherwise.

How the Revolution Happened

So, I’m going to try and bring government to you computer people out there. I’ll do it in a very simple way: A history lesson. Namely, about the birth of America.

America, some might say, was born when the Declaration of Independence was signed and sent out to the world, declaring that we were free, and that we hated England’s king. Then, we fought a war. Some claim America was born when we won that war. Finally, we signed a document that organized a government for the 13 colonies–or, as they were now to be known, the 13 states.

But that document, as many are not aware, was *not* the Constitution. It was called the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles set up a very loose federal government to complement, but not to supercede, those of the states. This system, they argued, would preserve local control over local matters, and leave the federal government to deal with federal issues–things like new states joining the union, war debts, and defense of the states. Really, under the Articles, America wasn’t a country at all, but a set of countries that were allied very closely.

Then, it turned out, that plan didn’t work. There was, for about ten years, a rash of rebellions, riots, and absuses of power in the states. There was very little money in the federal government, so the war debt from the Revolution wasn’t getting paid off. The states were all issuing their own currencies, too, so inflation was out of control and almost no interstate commerce would happen, since everyone had different money.

Finally, a group of men gathered in convention to try and rewrite the Articles. They swore to avoid a new system at all costs, but promised to give the federal government a new set of powers that would preserve the new nation’s integrity, and its coffers.

But, of course, those men didn’t just rewrite the Articles. They threw that document out in favor of a new one, called the Constitution. That document had a far stricter set of rules with regards to how the government was set up, and how everyone was to do their part. It ensured the fair representation of each state in the federal structure, and, under the Bill of Rights, explicitly preserved the freedoms of individuals.

Many historians will be rather cynical about the reasons for all of these happenings. First, they will say, the rich land-owners in the colonies didn’t want to pay taxes to Britain at all–never mind whether or not they were represented–so they stirred up revolution in the new world. Then, those same land-owners were assaulted and robbed by the very democracy they helped to erect, and wanted further protection. They realized that order and taxes were necessary in such a large system as a nation.

How the Revolution Needs to Happen

As we all know, this is a blog about technology, so I will stop chatting about history.

The above story about the Revolution is supremely relevant to the Free Software movement today. In drawing the parallel, I believe the Free Software camp is somewhere between writing the Declaration (which document might be parallel to “Why Software Should Not Have Owners”, an article by Richard Stallman) and writing the Constitution. We have realized the need for freedom, and we are fighting a war to get people to realize it, much less actually fight for it. We have some small attention from the public, and that is a step in the right direction.

However, there is an issue with our movement. We have yet to realize the need for order and taxes.

The software industry, as many nonfree software manufacturers will very quickly tell you, is an extremely large system. Many people rely on that industry for jobs. Simply telling those manufacturers and, by proxy, those people, that we simply won’t pay our taxes is not the way to win a war and launch a revolution. There needs to be some order on the other side for those people to be able to accept what we’re saying. Now, however much I think that requirement is satisfied (by Selling Free Software and other fine articles), there seems to still be some confusion about it. So, there does need to be a shift in rhetoric for all Free Software and Open Source Software advocates (who should first shift from their outdated terminology) from talking about price to talking about freedom.

Why Freedom

Freedom, you see, is largely the reason that people followed the Revolution when it came to town. It’s a cause people can believe in, so long as there hasn’t been a case of terrorism in the past few weeks. It’s something people hold dear, and don’t give up quickly. It’s something that they can fight for, and understand. Most importantly, it’s something that doesn’t attack the profits of big companies.

A large portion of Free Software users and advocates seem to use the “price tag” argument more often than is necessary. I say, if a Free Software user or advocate ever *needs* to resort to that argument, they should not be advocating to that person, because that person is not interested in freedom. Alternatively, that person needs, more than anyone, to hear why freedom is important. So, let’s throw out that argument for good. It doesn’t convince people of anything except to buy the cheapest software for the job. In some cases, that software is not free, and does not respect the users’ rights.

Selling Not Software

So then, we all have to ask how software will be produced. Big companies do fund a lot of software production, this is true–but a lot of their effort is wasted. Take the competing anti-viruses, for example. They have all spent the same amount of time fixing the same amount of problems with their software. If they had respected their users, those problems would have taken up a fraction of the time to fix, and the companies could have moved on to better, more lucrative projects.

And notice that, if we abandon the “price tag” argument, there is nothing stopping the distributors of software from selling the copies. The only problems are the lack of source code, the restrictive licenses, and the army of copyright lawyers ready to threaten customers. CDs and downloads-for-money are still perfectly legal–so long as they include the source code and do not restrict the user from using, modifying, or distributing the code in any way.

Pay the Taxes

In short, the Free Software movement needs to realize that, though the “price tag” argument is a convincing one, it will not win arguments, and it certainly will not win freedom. RMS himself has said that if people were to begin using Free Software, but were not taught about why their freedom was important, they would very quickly abandon that freedom in favor of something else. Let’s listen to that argument, and not encourage people who don’t understand freedom to start fighting for it.

We also need to start realizing that while Free Software may come without a price tag, that doesn’t mean it has to. While copying might give some people a free copy, many people will also choose to buy the software just as they would have otherwise. I would encourage people who create Free Software to start selling it, too.

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