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free software, nozick, anarchy right & left

I have been thinking about Free Software as a uniquely successful anarchist project, and one which may well–through its success–have impacts beyond the tools we use on our computers.

By “anarchist” I mean of course the actual definition, rather than reference to black-masked Molotov-cocktail-throwers, namely: a project based on the voluntary cooperation of free individuals, without hierarchy or imposed authority.

What makes Free Software exciting is its ability to propagate itself: that is, if you intend to make use of Free Software, you must agree to play by the rules of Free Software. You may use it, change it, copy it and share it as you like… but whatever you do with it, you must provide to the world on the same terms. The rest of the world must be free to use, change, copy and share. This is the beauty of the GNU General Public License. The ideal of the Free Software (anarchist) project is spread each time it is used.

One of my most infuriating reads as an undergrad was Robert Nozick. His 1974 philosophical text, Anarchy, State and Utopia underpins much of the right-wing movement of the past 30 years, along with work by free-marketeering economist Milton Friedman and the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Nozick argued strenuously that redistribution of wealth (the basis of the welfare state) is fundamentally unjust: taxation and redistribution of wealth (through, for instance, social programs) is on par with forced slave labour. No one, he claimed, has the right to take from a person goods which they have acquired or produced justly through their own work.

Nozick’s main premise is that justice can be defined through three actions:

1. how things not previously possessed by anyone may be acquired;
2. how possession may be transferred from one person to another; and
3. what must be done to rectify injustices arising from violations of (1) and (2).

His argument is that as long as 1 happens justly, 2 can only be achieved justly if the owner agrees – so no forced redistribution can be just.

I was looking over some of Nozick’s work (not much is available online, by the way) for other purposes, but was struck by how pleased Nozick would have been (I think) to see the Free Software movement emerge. While I have been interested in FS mainly for reasons from the left (an alternate way of organizing innovation and collaboration, outside of the traditional commercial framework), I realized that the FS movement is classic Nozick in its definition, and provides a true, real-life “test” of the justice principle. (This is often a failing in political philosophies of distribution, since in many require thought experiments to “test” a moral hypothesis, such as Hobbes‘ imagining the “social contract” development, one must to postulate a time before any civic rigths and resposibilities existed, and see what reasonable ageements may have been made).

In any case, FS offers a starting point to watch as a free system, based on a set of ethical principles, develops in real-time. Ownership here is completely redefined, through the GPL, and one can only claim ownership of free software if one relinquishes the traditional rights associated with that ownership. No government is needed to redistribute, since FS ingeniously makes redistribution a necessary condition of any FS transaction between two “agents”: the commons, which “owns” in a sense Free Software, and someone who wants to use and or modify the FS. That is, if you wish to use FS to build something new, whatever you build, you must allow to be redistributed freely in the same way the original FS was.

Here is a commons that is unlimited, and so far looks to be very far from tragedy. The thing to watch is how nervous the big corporations get, and how our apparent freed trade-loving governments move when it becomes clear that the world of proprietary software is feeling real pressure from the proliferation of FS.

So proponents of FS must be vigilant to watch what our governments are doing to find unjust ways of limiting the growth of this most innovative, and so far enromously successful, social and technological experiment.