Free Software and Free Market

Neither Microsoft nor the open source movement participates in the free market. The one side has no interest in money, the other has complete control of its market segment. The end result, however, is the same: indifference to market forces. These two companies show how opposite extremes can tend to mirror one another. But they also show that it is not free markets alone that drive our economy.

For some people the argument that I am making here will sound like heresy. But as I explained in an earlier article entitled "The Drive to Write Free Software," the world isn’t nearly as simple as it appears to be. The free market is a necessary and important part of modern life, but it is only a part of a larger picture.

It is easy to get stuck in the past. It is easy to believe in outdated theories like a pure free market that exists without compromise, and to fail to see that these theories don’t conform to what is happening in the real world. Our minds can’t adapt to the rapid rate of change in the modern world. What we need is not more free rigid theories, but the freedom to use whatever tools work, so long as they don’t violate our sense of ethics and fair play.

In the midst of all this confusion, it is the rare person who recognizes in all this diversity the chaos that makes up the web of life. There is hope in all this diversity. It is precisely this diverse confluence of cacophonous voices that can often best promote innovation.

The true force of innovation doesn’t belong to any one economic theory, but rather to man’s innate desire to evolve and to improve his state. Anything that promotes innovation and the production of much needed, high quality, software is good, so long as it doesn’t violate our moral principles. For instance, there is no reason why free markets can’t learn from the open software movement. Maybe the open source model is better than the closed source model. Why can’t companies like Borland learn from the free software movement in a case like this? Why must they work in secrecy, why can’t they be more open? It’s a proven technique that works for the free software movement, why can’t it work for them?

I personally don’t like monocultures. So sometimes I believe innovation is supported by free markets, sometimes by laws that restrain unfair competition. And yet I can see that sometimes it might be free software that promotes innovation, and sometimes, oddly enough, it might be a monopoly like Microsoft or even a state owned business like the Post Office.

The world isn’t as simple as some might wish, but it sure is a lot simpler if people free themselves from the shackles of their narrow prejudices and ill conceived preconceptions. The bigger, and more open your mind, the easier it is for you to navigate through the rapid change found in the modern world. The enemy isn’t free software, or open source software, or the free market, or even a monopoly. Borland is a great company. And so is Microsoft. But the free software movement has also contributed enormously to our society. The enemy isn’t diversity. The enemy is a chauvinistic logician who thinks she has a theory of everything, whether that theory is called free software, or a free market. The enemy is a rigid, narrow, closed mind.

Ultimately, we can’t prove that free software is better than the free market, that monopolies are always evil, nor that the free market should dominate our economy to the exclusion of all other ways of life. But we can apply our ethics and our sense of fair play to the world around us, and decide which parts of each of these competing theories best suits our sense of what is right and wrong.