"Beware the greedy hand of government, thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry." ~ Thomas Paine
Operating Systems: Lessons for Libertarians 1.0
Exclusive to STR
January 16, 2007
There is a surprising lack of articles relating libertarian systems to computer operating systems. There is also inconsistency and a bit of ignorance on the part of writers who are generally good. Take Lew Rockwell in this anti-Linux article from 2000, and compare it to this pro-Linux article on the same website in 2006. The situation had not changed in those years, but the background biases had. In 2000, we were at the end of the Clinton administration. Clinton's Justice Department had been attacking Microsoft, and so superficially, it was a case of big government attacking a business providing free market services. By 2006, the web had made much more knowledge available to the public, and more libertarians became aware that Microsoft was not remotely a victim of the state for market advocates to defend. Here we see another case where a business was built from scratch (or I should say acquisition), accumulated massive market power, and then inevitably converted it to political power.1 Microsoft uses the state to enforce draconian regulations worldwide, such as through their dominant position in the BSA. Like the IRS, with the BSA, you are guilty until proven innocent. Whether you are innocent or not is irrelevant, only whether you have evidence to prove innocence. You also are not refunded for costs of proving innocence, even if successful. I will leave evaluation of many critiques of Microsoft to the reader. Yet, evidence that they built their empire by incorporating both public domain and borrowed code should be noted when they use the BSA to threaten these unpaid contributors. The libertarian perspective centers around rights, and even if and when certain copyrights should be enforceable, the costs of enforcement should fall entirely on those who maintain them, and not enforced by a state or taxation. Microsoft owes the vast majority of its revenue, and has built its sales platform on the threat of punishment by the state. In a world of a million sovereign communities, instead of ~175 nations, it would prove impossible to threaten all of them. But this article is not meant to be primarily Microsoft bashing. It is a lesson in power and markets. Power corrupts, or so we often believe. Even market power can be abused, just as by Henry Ford, Rockefeller, and nearly every mega-capitalist in history turned against the free-market, if they ever really supported it. Consider the early Microsoft vs. Apple era. Apple attempted a vertical monopoly to internalize as much profit as it could. Microsoft was part of the more decentralist IBM compatible PC model by allowing hardware profit to be an unrestricted market. The decentralist model won, but IBM underestimated the software side, and dependence on a single, centralized OS made Microsoft a giant. With power gained in victory over Apple, Microsoft moved to re-centralize power. It made restrictions to punish computer manufactures that wanted to also ship some computers with products of Microsoft competitors, and made it intentionally difficult for competing software products to work as well on its operating system. Similarly, with Windows Genuine Advantage, it blocks its other software products, even if legally purchased, from fully operating on other operating systems. So within the software industry, Microsoft has attempted to establish the centralized system that failed Apple for many of the major areas of the software market. Despite what you may guess, I am not a computer geek. The only programming class I had was one long forgotten FORTRAN class in college, and until a few weeks ago, I had never tried Linux. I've still never tried an Apple. I can provide a fair opinion of Linux from a non-techie whose only experience is Microsoft systems dating back to DOS 5.0. My first experiment with open source software was Firefox for Windows for the past two years. I was significantly impressed after having used Internet Explorer. It is more amazing considering its origin as previously failed proprietary software. Open sourcing it allowed it to be improved to become the most respected browser on the market. So I also tried Open Office after using MS Office daily for years, finding it equal in quality2 and a better deal despite owning a copy of MS Office Professional 97. I experienced firsthand what I later read about as The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Open the truth (source of the software) to the people and they will be set free (improve it). Those who keep it secret effectively do so to keep the flaws secret. Such has been the case with Microsoft Excel. It has longstanding major flaws in its statistical calculations that are continuously present after many successive, expensive new versions. In contrast, when a free software competitor was notified of similar problems, it was corrected very quickly. The claim that commercial software is necessarily better because of the R&D budgets of big corporations turned out to be vapor-arguments. After experiencing many problems in Windows, I was ready to finally try Linux. I'm not going to claim that Windows is bad in itself for the average user. However, Microsoft is fully on board the DRM crusade, and many inconveniences to users are now acceptable to it. If you want to watch your legally purchased DVD on your legally purchased computer using your legally purchased Windows OS, Microsoft would rather you not because of a risk you 'could' do something illegal. Further, unless you are or employ software EULA lawyers, you have a hard time knowing what is legal and what is not. Especially now that Vista is locking down to its first installed computer and not allowing it to be transferred. How many parts can you upgrade before you aren't even sure whether Microsoft will consider it the same computer? What if you want to keep your essential personal files and operating system on a portable USB hard drive so you can run your own system using virtually any USB bootable computer? This is very simple and legal in Linux. Do you have a clue if it is even possible or legal with Windows? What if you wanted to have this OS plus essential programs and files also on a desktops, laptops, multiple backup flash drives, etc.? All legal and simple with Linux, but ranges from illegal to very expensive to impossible with Windows. As I've found, in terms of usability for the common person's home computer, a few Linux distributions equal Windows XP. Some already have passed it, and the development momentum is in Linux' favor. A few businesses may legitimately be tied in to Microsoft so deeply that their total cost of ownership (TCO) really is cheaper to stay than to switch . . . for now. The average home user understands neither Windows nor Linux, gets spyware infestations and decides to solve the problem by buying a new computer. A slightly above average home user, such as anyone who would be able to read this article, is already smart enough to switch to Linux. New Linux user distributions make the various style and naming convention differences unessential knowledge which can be learned as time and interest permits. Linux has a Live Distro method to test out Linux systems for free without altering your current system. Check some out, learn how they work along with various Linux guides. Consider installing to an old hard drive attached internally or by USB, or even make a USB flash drive into a whole operating system. Gone are the days when the state can break in and ruin your life by confiscating your PC as it did Peter McWilliams, to keep him from finishing a book, if you keep all essential data and operations on a hidden or duplicated USB flash drive operating system. For beginners like myself, I've been most impressed with Linux Mint. All important devices were automatically detected and worked immediately, and plays CDs and DVDs better than Windows. This is based on Ubuntu, which is already the most popular user friendly system. Also consider Dreamlinux, MEPIS, Knoppix, PCLinuxOS, Xandros, Freespire, and keep up with many choices at www.distrowatch.com. Seven years ago, Lew Rockwell was likely influenced into attacking Linux as 'socialist' due to the funding that conservative and libertarian-leaning think tanks received from Microsoft to attack Linux. In particular, AdTI published a book, funded by Microsoft, filled with notorious falsehoods, such as claiming Linux stole source code from Minix. All sides now admit the various accusations as false. The Cato Institute, unsurprising for those who have kept up with it, also sold out libertarian principles influenced by Microsoft's donations. A typical example of socialist distribution vs. market distribution is any market where a free society provides many choices but a socialist state makes a singular decision for everyone. Not only does Linux not match this model of socialist centralization, but Microsoft does. Here is the key, by eliminating heavy dependency on proprietary software, you eliminate one centralization of abusable power. Linux ties its user into its knowledge base, but by its license agreement, that ties users into no one in particular, as good ideas can be taken and forked or merged into other projects. It leaves the source code open so anyone who desires can become an expert. So is Linux the best operating system? That's a question that must be asked on many levels, both dependent and independent of user bases and network effects, but in general, probably. Linux didn't really 'win' the battle against Minix on inherent value. Minix became famous by opening up the source code, making it more decentralized than its competitors. Linux extended the decentralism even further and so attracted developers who wanted the most freedom conceivable. Lately, Minix 3 has joined the Linux free distribution model and may eventually be up to offering a fair comparison of the micro vs. monolithic kernel debate between them. Further, ReactOS (in development but with enough critical mass to bet on making massive waves) poses a different approach by completely eliminating user convention differences with Windows, and may possibly out class Microsoft at their own style for free. Home versions of BSD are available for the curious too, but not likely beginners. The Calvinist Gary North3 has also made well-known attacks on Linux and support for Microsoft here, here, and here. It is worth addressing due to his wide readership among libertarians. To be fair, his criticism of Linux is from 2004, and although somewhat out of date then, has become radically out of date since. Some Linux distributions are now as easy as Windows with more support, often free support through the internet, or even local groups, like one near me, with plentiful paid help worldwide. It has been the continuous improvement of Linux by the same techies whom North calls cultists that made his arguments for a Y2K disaster equally out of date long before he admitted it. His quip that Linux requires every user to be a priest is no longer true. By religious comparison, Microsoft represents the medieval Catholicism that refused to allow the common men to even read the Bible. Gary North makes an oft cited "free market" argument that no one who believes in persuasion consistently believes. It amounts to this: "The free market has decided. Period. What right does anyone have to question the market?" Although he uses this for Microsoft, I doubt he would use it in religion. So why are some market decisions worthy of criticism and attempts to alter and others morally neutral and indisputable? If there is a use for such an argument, it requires a less inevitably hypocritical formulation. Libertarians acknowledge that the market/society/voluntary interaction preceded the state. So, the state formed by converting something allowed within the market to political power. Voluntary social systems allowed (in the sense of failed to stop) something to form that had the power to overthrow this system. We must acknowledge that there is an ever present, but not necessarily fatal weakness within the market. Rothbard and others supposed that a free market society would have the common sense to not voluntarily turn over all the guns to some group and then say, "You can only use them under condition X." Nevertheless, some corporations obtain this much relative power. But a passive approach to the market (treating it as beyond individual influence) will provide no response to the snake oil salesmen (statesmen?) who argue for the benefits of security providable by disproportionately powerful and centralized organizations. The only way to preserve the market from the temptation to overthrow it is to voluntarily and vigilantly choose to balance and beware of power, even market power. Power corrupts, and even libertarians can underestimate that. For those who really study all the details of the example of Microsoft (or of Ford, Rockefeller, etc.) these cases will provide lessons beyond what certain think tanks biased by donations might claim. Call this a partial concession to anarcho-socialism if you will. I see it as call for decentralism as necessary to preserve liberty. Both the centralized mega-corporation model of a free society some libertarians advocate and the centralized nation-scaled anarchism of the CNT can equally be expected to yield to the temptations of turning their economic power into political power. Linux, through the GPL is perfectly designed to limit the natural temptation to abuse power by decentralizing every step of production, use, possession, and ownership. Such a model of organization can in no meaningful way be compared to the centralism that was necessary to any Marxist or Mercantilist state or empire. If you, dear reader, can and know how to download and burn a 700 MB file to CDROM, then you likely have all you computer software you need to take one important decentralist step to a freer world. Linux allows the common person to be a 4th generation warrior against centralized power on many levels. Like in 4th Gen. War, the lumbering giant is its own worst enemy and propagandist for the decentralized alternative. It wasn't Microsoft that originally won the desktop war against Apple, it was the decentralized IBM compatible PC. Microsoft turned out to be the centralized parasite originally underestimated within that model. Similarly, the United States became the economic powerhouse because of the decentralized freedom of its markets, but the US government was the underestimated centralized parasite within this system. There are two opposite models for OS market direction. One is the model of the Dvorak keyboard. There is no reason to continue using QUERTY except for inertia, early adopter reluctance, and unwillingness to take a short term decrease in typing speed for a permanent 40% increase in typing efficiency, and yet few have done so.4 Then there is the model of the quick and universal adoption of the Google search engine. The difference is that the average person only changes when short term switching costs are effectively zero. Microsoft forcing revenue growth at the increasingly parasitic expense of its customer base will be as strong a trigger as the actual but real advantages of Linux.
1 In my blog article, Post-Anarcho-Capitalism, I argue that the barrier between economic power and political power is self imposed/regulated, and disproportionate economic power makes the fence between them easy and tempting to overstep.
3 Though I'm critical of North here, I think him one of the better prolific writers on many topics not to be dismissed.
4 My experience is that it takes a few weeks to surpass a very fast typing speed transitioning from QUERTY to Dvorak.