December 05, 2003

Internalizing anti-capitalism

So here I am reading an informative item in Reason's Hit and Run on the latest attempt by Darl McBride to convince the world that he actually has a case and shouldn't be punished to the full extent of the law for abuse of process, conspiracy, extortion, fraud, and more defamation counts than you can shake a stick at and it hits me. Darl McBride has imbibed so much anti-capitalist propaganda that he thinks that the anti-capitalist description of how capitalists should operate is accurate. He thinks that capitalism should produce capitalists that are soulless money counters that would make the old Scrooge (before he met the three ghost's of Christmas) proud.

The entire point of ownership of something is the right to dispose of it as you please. This includes the right to give it to someone else as a gift, to conditionally give it as long as somebody honors a covenant, or to sell it. Normally this is uncontroversial but with the special category of goods called software, a new wrinkle arises. Software can be copied in large quantities for extremely small sums. If I write a utility that is generally useful and give it away, nobody in the world need ever do without it again as copies proliferate worldwide. If it is good enough to do the job, it is possible that nobody else will trouble themselves with reinventing the wheel to make a competitive product.

The two major traditions of open and free software are the BSD tradition which follows the idea of the unrestricted gift and the GPL tradition which follows the idea of the restricted covenant gift. Those who sell software are generally called proprietary software developers.

What Darl McBride does in his letter is to give the impression that the only good software capitalist is a capitalist who works only in the third tradition of proprietary software. The only real capitalist is someone who sells his work, who never gives it away. Nothing may exist outside the commercial marketplace.

Of course this is nonsense. Charitable works predate capitalism and are essential to the function of capitalism. In fact, Free Software as embodied by the GPL is not even pure charity but a self-interested charity. The people who invented the most popular web server on the planet, the Apache Software Group, are a classic example of Burke's "little platoons". The underlying code of the then popular NCSA server was buggy and was being fixed too slowly. So a bunch of administrators of NCSA servers started freely sharing their fixes with one another. These patched servers started drifting further and furhter away from the canonical NCSA code and earned the name "patchy servers" which morphed into Apatchy servers and the final Apache server name. No individual administrator would have been able to devote the time necessary to fix all the problems in the NCSA code but together and by not charging for their own fixes, each participating group member got to go home to their family on time more often than otherwise would have been the case.

McBride's entire case is an anti-Burkean, and I would say anti-american tract. The idea that it's not always about money is not only constitutional but profoundly american. This is the america of the church, the booster club, the little tin can that the shopkeeper puts by the cash register for a favored charity. It is what makes life bearable and solves problems both great and small in a humanizing way that the anti-capitalists have never really accepted is a fundamental part of a properly understood real life capitalism.

If the only way to provide a good or service is to demand money for it, we might as well revoke all the nonprofit corporate charters in existence. But these corporate charters have been authorized by local, state, and federal governments for centuries. McBride is an anti-capitalist poster boy, the mustachio twirling corporate greed head. He needs to be stopped before he starts tying people to railroad tracks.

Posted by TMLutas at December 5, 2003 04:38 PM