Richard Stallman, free software and voluntaryism: thoughts after dinner

published Mar 20, 2012, last modified Jun 26, 2013

On the ethical problems with the free software ethos.

Richard Stallman, free software and voluntaryism: thoughts after dinner
St. IGNUcius

Recently, I went to dinner with Richard Stallman after his talk at Noisebridge. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know him better and I had a blast. Coincidentally, he made a number of statements and answered a number of questions that I have been wanting, for the longest time, to get his opinion on. And I'm profoundly thankful for having had the opportunity to ask him directly on them.

We went to a Burmese restaurant and had a lot of great conversation. Richard is flat out a very brilliant man, and he kept us entertained.

However, I think after that dinner I found a philosophical problem with the free software movement that makes it partially incompatible with voluntaryism. It took me a few days to figure out what it was, but now I know. Let me explain.

Richard is against abolishing copyrights because, to his view, without copyright, enforcing copyleft would be impossible. This, of course, I see as a mistake in two different ways.

The first error is practical and should be obvious: it is clearly possible to enforce copyleft solely using contracts -- one only needs to rewrite a license like the GPL as a contract, then any signers can be held to its letter at the nearest judicial / dispute resolution organization. Other people have written extensively about the topic, so I won't elaborate on this.

The second error is of an ethical nature, and I believe it shows the reactionary and inconsistent nature of Richard's ethos. On this error, I will most definitely elaborate now.

In Richard's view, having copyright available as a tool to support copyleft is not enough. His stated goal goes way beyond that.

According to Richard, every piece of software ought to be copyleft. That implies, peaceful people willing to exchange software under certain non-copyleft terms -- for example, "I give you money, you give me a compiled binary" -- are behaving unethically (and therefore they ought to be punished, and such transactions prohibited). In a "fully copylefted" world, only copyleft software transactions would be accepted as "ethical" (and therefore free of punishment).

Richard defines this fundamental ethos as the foundation of the free software movement. Interestingly, it is also the core distinction between Eric S. Raymond's open source movement and free software itself ("free software is good, but one should have the freedom to choose unfree software" vs. "no unfree software is ethical").

The problem with the free software ethos, as should be obvious now, is that punishing peaceful people for engaging in certain types of relationships is as far from free as it could possibly be. These principles are at odds with the most fundamental voluntaryist principle of non-aggression, and its logical consequences of freedom of association and commerce. It is, in effect, a preference for "free software" and against the real freedom of Men to interact peacefully between them as they see fit. This ethos clearly does not make sense from a voluntaryist perspective. In fact, I would be willing to say that the free software ethos has strong similarities with the wage slavery argument, insofar as a particular type of peaceful activity is incorrectly perceived to be "exploitative" and its detractors seek to prohibit it.

I must conclude that the free software ethos, as expressed by Richard, was clearly not derived from any first principles but rather was created after the fact as an ad hoc set of principles assumed to be true on their face.

So, if that's the case, how can we explain the free software ethos then?

Well, I happen to think this ethos can be explained quite easily, in my opinion.

If you look at his own statements about the creation of the GNU project and the free software movement, he started the free software movement out of mostly emotional reasons. He had lost his tightly-knit community at the hands of copyright. One natural human reaction would be to reinterpret this (admittedly sucky) reality as a "moral wrong", identify oneself as a "wronged victim", and then form a reactionary ethos to that. Maybe that sounds awful, but we've all been there, so I understand.

Still, the ethos does make some form of sense, in the frame of a reaction against the salvo fired by the copyright monopolists.

So what are Richard's views on statism?

Well, Richard's statism shows. He's very honest about being a statist (he even said something very humorous: "I'm a statist. I have a pro-state gland."). Richard refused to talk about voluntary solutions to social problems. I even tried to ask him "What would it take for you to be persuaded to change your mind about the state?" and he cut me off.

Which kind of sucks. I really wanted Richard to not be a statist. In every single evil he fights for, it's painfully obvious that the root cause for that evil is the State. How a very brilliant person can fight for 60 years against all the evils of the State, and not notice that the common thread in all these fights (most of them hopelessly lost) is the God Damn State... it sincerely puzzles me.

To his credit, he saw evil where others saw none (namely the evil of copyrights that destroyed his and many other communities) and then he attempted to solve it. I commend him for that; in the process, he has given us an extremely valuable tool to fight evil too. The only exception I take to it, is that his solution took the form of a flawed "patch" (statist copyright-dependent copyleft as a reaction) that attempts to "subvert the code base" for his own goals. And that will ultimately fail: one does not simply infiltrate a Mafia and turn it into a charity organization.

Richard's a man, and he's a well-intentioned, good man. He is brilliant, but he is human after all, so he is not immune to the biases that plague everyone else. I have to judge the man for his principles, for his principles will ultimately dictate the results of his efforts... but I'm also willing to judge him on his persistence and sheer accomplishments, and for that he gets nothing but respect from me.

Richard, may we have you around for very, very long.