At the beach over the weekend, I read Anthem by Ayn Rand. Now before you write me off as the kind of guy that would go around telling people he reads Ayn Rand for fun, let me just say in my defense that this is really the first full Ayn Rand book I have read. And it is only 105 pages long. Having read this, I’d totally read the CliffsNotes for The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged (which is like 1200 pages long).
Rand originally titled Anthem as “Ego” and you can definitely tell why. It is about a futuristic world where people are kinda back in the dark ages technologically-speaking, and live in a collective where people have numbers rather than names, are assigned jobs for life, and have forgotten the word “I” (yes, totally annoying… in the first ten chapters, the main character uses the royal “we” to refer to himself).
It seems like Ayn Rand has been back in the news lately, and I’ve seen her name bandied about in political arguments quite a bit, especially regarding healthcare reform. So it made me think, if Ayn Rand’s core philosophy was about maintaining the supremacy of the individual, what she calls “rational self-interest,” and she rejected the idea that the collective good should be put before the good of the individual, what would she think about the open source movement?
After all, I used to remember seeing stories with proprietary companies referring to open source as socialism all the time, although it doesn’t seem to happen as much these days. More and more of the biggest companies are embracing open source software and the concept of open source is more mainstream than ever.
So surely Ayn Rand would hate open source, right? Not so fast. Here are two good reasons why Ayn Rand might totally dig open source:
The original title for Anthem gives a hint at the first reason. In the extremely socialistic, Borg-like world Ayn creates in the novella, no one maintains any individuality at all, people don’t even have real names, and they serve the will of the state with every minute of their day. There is zero tolerance for individual pursuit or achievement.
In the open source world, there is great tolerance of ego. In fact, one could even say that individual pursuit of glory and discovery might be at the very heart of what makes open source work. In an open source world, developers can work on any projects that interest them. They can ignore the projects that don’t interest them, even if their talents applied there would help the common good tremendously.
And the open source movement loves its superstars, the people who have made it to the top of the meritocracy through good work and good ideas. These are the people who are swarmed at conferences– I’ve even seen people ask for autographs from some of the top developers at Red Hat.
Open source celebrates the role of the individual at every turn. Perhaps Ayn Rand would view open source as a tool to organize rationally self-interested people into groups sharing common interests and motivations.
Ayn Rand strongly believes the individual should never sacrifice his freedom, to government or other men. The open source movement strongly protects the freedoms of not only its developers, but its users as well. In fact, pre-dating open source, Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, defined these basic freedoms back in 1986 that still hold true in the open source world:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
While I think Ayn would probably chafe at the “help your neighbor” and “whole community benefits” bits, the overall concept of these freedoms is that, as an individual, you can pretty much do what you want with the code: look at it, use it, modify it, redistribute it.
Perhaps this focus on individual freedoms for users makes open source even more palatable to an Ayn Rand worldview than proprietary software would be. After all, proprietary software actually tries pretty hard to restrict some of your individual freedoms.
I went to Google to see if anyone else was making a connection between Ayn Rand and open source. There are a few interesting links. My favorite: it turns out that a writer for The Atlasphere, an Ayn Rand fanboy site, came to a similar conclusion in this blog post from last year. A quote:
Since open-source software is available free of cost, most people outside the movement — and within it — mistakenly see it as an altruistic undertaking.
Quite a few of them have even forgotten that it is not intended to be free as in “free beer” but free as in “freedom of speech.”
Either way, most of them fail to realize that there is an individualism at its core. And it is this spirit, not altruism, which lies at the heart of the open source movement.
So that makes two of us… anyone else have a view on what Ayn might think about open source? I know there are some Ayn Rand superfans out there… let me know what you think by voting below.
Rand always supported the free association of men who work together by voluntary agreement, each deriving from it his own personal benefit.
As long as open source does not involve the violation of property rights [or any other rights] then she would be OK with it.
‘The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations. Any group that does not recognize this principle is not an association, but a gang or a mob.’ Ayn Rand, Virtue Of Selfishness.
Interesting post – looking forward to reading more!
Even though I find Stallman abrasive and a bit nuts in terms of his own political philosophy (he’s pretty far-left leaning today), the movement that kicked off projects like Linux struck me as taking on a rather individualistic personality. Windows in my mind represents the embodiment of collectivism. Like in other collectives, your Windows machine is no different than the thousands of other Windows machines out there. You can’t customize it very easily, you can’t tweak it, and if something doesn’t work, tough. Need some support? Well, you’re literally a number to Microsoft and don’t expect any help unless everything is WGA approved.
Linux (and BSD too) represent something totally different. Your machine could function totally different compared to the next Linux box. You can customize it to the nth degree. If you see a problem, you can file a bug report and get feedback on it. Now, some might say that open-source functions like socialism because the code is distributed for free and you have others sharing it voluntarily. To which I say, “Well, why did you join that project in the first place?” Most people who code in open-source projects do so to either improve their own skills, fix bugs they spot or implement features that they want. For instance, IBM regularly throws thousands and thousands of dollars at different open-source projects, both on their own projects and others outside of IBM. Do you think IBM is doing so because they feel kind and generous towards the community? Hell no! They want to make lots of bucks! But it’s this “selfish motive” that ultimately benefits both parties.
b$#@%&! ayn rand would HATE open source. because open source is the epitome of man working for the good of the community. the whole community can help and does. the final result is that we all benefit.
Good article – thank you. Found it when looking for people who had made the connection between Ayn Rand and open source, which I think is very strong. However, I think a distinction needs to be drawn here between the Free Software Foundation (FSF) movement, founded by Richard Stallman, and the Open Source Initiative (OSI), started by a number of people the most vocal of whom has been Eric Raymond (“The Cathedral and the Bazaar”). As others have suggested, I would guess that Rand would find some of Richard Stallman’s views on property rights difficult to take on board. However, I think that the OSI flavour of open source is philosophically extremely close to Ayn Rand’s position.
I should reference Copy, Rip, Burn by David M. Berry which offers a thought-provoking analysis of FSF, OSI and the open source movement as a whole. Berry makes a link between Rand and the OSI position, particularly in reference to an open source project leader as a Rand-ian ‘benevolent dictator’, though I reckon the links are even stronger than he indicates.
If Objectivism would be taken serious by the objectivists, then free software would be one of the most adored phenomena of living, working rationalism and individualism among the Ayn Rand fans.
But it is not: more or less everybody who considers him/herself a follower of Ojectivism prefers to follow dogmas such as “Capitalism and individual freedom depend on each other.” And they drop rationalism in exchange.
I lived in a communist country in my youth and I tell you a secret: today the Ayn Rand followers are the ones that remind me the most of the followers of the vulgar perversion, mediocre bourgois have named “Marxism” and based their tyranny on it.
And anything like open source would have been either forbidden or contained in a communist dictatorship.
At the core of the open source concept you may find something, some people like to call altruism. But the altruism is just a side-effect of the rationalism in open source: collaboration and generosity helps a lot to make your individualistic dreams come true. It works better than competition and selfishness. And there is no need to humiliate your ego to work successfull with others.