Free software as a political paradox

This slashdot story prompted me to write a post about free software and politics which I had hinted in a footnote of my first post.

Before carrying on, for the sake of clarity I should state that in France, I’m center-left, in the US I’m a dangerous leftist.

The author of the slashdot story is puzzled to see that right-wing people are more likely to use free software than left-wing ones. But, given that free software is generally considered to be a ‘left’ value, one would have thought it would be the opposite (and, as some comments explain, I believe it is the case in France). However there are two ways to see the problem :

You can consider the software industry to be the perfect example of capitalism and free entreprise in action, and therefore free software, aiming to destroy it, to be anti-capitalist (thus left-oriented).

Or, you can consider that free software, being the empowerment of the individual, is an even better free enterprise illustration against the state-like monopoly of the software industry. One of the basic postulate behind right-wing politics is that the free market always finds the best solution, eventually, a solution which state-driven economics (i.e. socialism) cannot hope to find. And that’s exactly what free software postulates : give free reign to developpers and they will create software that the industry (which is a state-like structure) can’t possibly produce. And there you have why libertarians such as ESR who believe in minimal government also support free software.

At this point it’s hard to resist indulging into an obvious statement : the little I’ve learned about economics clearly show that free market (or, the combination of everybody’s selfish motives) does reach equilibrium, only the worst one. And you have a perfect example of this in free software : people prefer to start their own project than to collaborate with an existing one. The very philosophy of free software gives them a perfect reason to do so : “let the users decide”. Only the users don’t have perfect market knowledge, they don’t evaluate different pieces of software rationally, but emotionally. Because they liked what the author said in an interview, because they like the looks, or some specific feature, but not because it’s really better written or designed (they may sometimes argue so but honestly, have they really looked at the code ?). So sometimes there is indeed stabilisation over a few pieces of software, each fitting its own niche. Most of the time however you get a big old duplication of efforts, with zealots on each side arguing on how their own favorite is really the best one and the other side are just a bunch of morons.

So there. If free market really was working so well, we wouldn’t have two incomplete desktop frameworks and Microsoft would be long gone. Instead, it seems that the State as a government system is still the best working solution : letting devs do what they like whenever possible, and constraining them to do what’s needed the rest of the time. And that’s why I’d rather pay taxes than letting the market decide if a school or a road should be built or not.

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