A parallel of principles

I stumbled across an interesting blog post by Benjamin Mako Hill from last year. It discusses the dichotomy between “open source” and “free software”, i.e. between those within the FLOSS community who emphasise the practical benefits of the distributed, open development method and those who talk about the users’ rights and freedoms. Benjamin Mako Hill makes an interesting argument in favour of talking about software freedom instead of “open source”: software freedom is about the statement of principles while open source makes empirical claims which may or may not be true.

To put the argument more pointedly: if you are a FLOSS enthusiast, are you ready to start supporting closed source systems if research shows that the closed development method in fact produces better software? For example, security expert Steve Gibson recently argued persuasively on his podcast that there is no real difference in security between the closed and open source software development methodologies.

To make a quick personal aside, the reason why I initially switched from Windows 98 to Linux, and later from Linux to Mac OS X as my main operating system was purely from this practical standpoint. I liked Linux and open source, but I found Mac OS X to be even better quality-wise, e.g. with better usability. However, my recent switch back to Linux was made from a principled standpoint, since my priorities had changed. I know the usability won’t be quite as good as on the Mac and I might have to work harder to get things to work, but since my priority is now software freedom I can live with that.

My main point, however, is to make a parallel that I thought of while discussing politics with a friend over a few beers recently. My friend lamented how political discussions are nowadays always framed around economic arguments, hiding or perhaps forgetting the original values of the political groups involved. In the typical argument, a certain policy should be adopted because it will increase economic growth or reduce expenditures, not because it is the most just or ethical alternative. This is especially distressing for the democratic left — which I believe has the strongest ethical arguments. Organising a society in a way that distributes wealth more equally might be an economically superior solution, or it might not (of course it also depends on how you measure economic success). In the end the goals are not economical or technological superiority but social justice and software freedom. These are statements of ethical opinion, not empirical claims. I think this is important to remember, both in software and politics.

Posted by Mats Sjöberg.