Freedom, not democracy

I was actually being productive and doing some work related research when I stumbled on this article on Open Source. The content of the article isn’t that important. What prompted me to mention it is this:

"Just because a big company open sources a product doesn't mean it will get used," says Neelan Choksi, vice president for Interface21, which makes the popular open source Spring framework for Java and Java EE applications. "Open source is a democracy—people vote with their feet."

Now, Choksi is making a point about the futility of using public relations tactics to get people to use crappy software, but what is more interesting to me is the last bit, “Open source is a democracy—people vote with their feet.” He’s right that it is about “voting with one’s feet”, but he’s wrong that has anything to do with democracy.

Democracy is a form of cooperative decision making. The process is that everyone agrees beforehand to be bound by a single decision arrived at by the group as a whole. Whether all votes are equal isn’t really crucial to the core idea. What’s important here is that there is only one decision, one outcome, and it will be binding on everyone.

“Voting with one’s feet” describes a market. The distinguishing feature of a market is that each individual is able to choose among options. There are many decisions, many outcomes, and each is binding only on that individual.

So which is open source software? … So which is open source software? Actually, being open source doesn’t have anything to do with it. Choosing what software to use is very definitely a market situation. Of course, you are limited by what is economically feasible. If what you want is something that lots of people want, then you’ll be able to get it. So if I want the performance of running Linux in 64 bit mode, then I have to do without being able to see websites that require Flash. If I want everything to work right out of the box and play lots of games, then I have to deal with Windows being a piece of crap. If I want to have a beautiful user interface built on top of a rock solid BSD core, then I have to fork over the money for Apple products, and even more for the increased overall software cost due to the limited availability. But being a market means that my choice only impacts me.

If software were like democracy, then the internet would get together and decide we’re all going to use Windows, or all going to use Linux.

Democracy has its place. If it really is necessary for there to be one, and only one decision made, then democracy is a good way to make that decision under some circumstances. Democracy has a pretty good record in the political arena. Democracies tend to be wealthier, more free, and significantly more peaceful than other forms of government. Democracy is the basis for governing public companies (although here it is “one share, one vote” not, “one person, one vote”). In politics, a caucus is a group (generally members of a political party or coalition within a legislative body) who agree to decide democratically among themselves how to vote on given issues and then be bound to vote with the group in the larger body.

But too many people assume that decisions always need to be made collectively. That’s why I love the metaphor Choksi used, “voting with your feet”. If you live in a democracy, and you don’t like the decisions that are being made, that is, if it always seems that every decision ends up the opposite of how you would want things, maybe then it’s time to leave that group. If you have a group of friends, and you find yourself saying, “why don’t we go see this movie”, and everyone else wants to go to the bar, you can whine about it, ask them to take into account your desires from time to time, or try to convince them that it’s going to be a really good movie, but eventually, you may have to face the fact that it’s time to find a new circle of friends.

What’s this an argument for? Devolution and decentralization of power. To go back to the concrete world, we shouldn’t be mandating school standards at the federal level. We should let the states try different things, and let people move to the state that suits them. Or even at the city level. Sure, there are things that need to be done at the federal level, or even international level. Two hundred years ago, the states had armies. Now, we don’t even go to war without an international coalition. The issue there touches on the subject of hard versus soft compromises, which I’ll get into a different time.

Democracy means one answer for all. The market means freedom. The first question to ask isn’t, “what should we do?”, it’s whether this is something that we need to do to begin with.