Intrinsic Value of Free Software?

I recently read an article by Benjamin Mako Hill called When Free Software Isn’t Better. This article addresses the fundamental argument of importance, between the Open Source engineering paradigms and political Software Freedom. For an outsider, this argument can be difficult to understand. The approximate argument is that Open Source considers community the most important while Free Software considers individual user freedom the most important. The argument is made even more confusing because many if not most “open” software is both Free and Open Source. The two sides are not mutually exclusive. The main argument is, which is more important.

Hill argues persuasively, that even if the Open Source promise of better engineered software fails, that if the Free Software component is stressed, that the advocacy of Free Software will still have the advantage of user freedom. I think he might be onto something, but lets walk through a thought experiment. Lets say two software projects fail at an early stage before they have a working piece of software. Let’s also say each project only has one developer, which is common in early stages. One project stresses it’s Open Source model, one stresses it’s Free Software model. When the projects die, the code may or may not be used by some other programmer, but neither has a community, so the conclusion is logically the same. It appears to be a philosophical argument more than an economic one, e.g. I don’t think the argument changes the range of possible actions for a failing software project. I also suspect that the value of user freedom becomes more important proportional to the number of users a project has. Either way, ultimate economic failure has occurred, some tidbits of code are left in the ocean, nothing more. I I think we have to advocate Free and Open Source software, there is no other way to prevent ultimate economic failure, e.g death of the project.

Personally, I think they are both important in contributing to a better quality of life, though I am a moderate. I think one without the other is less than ideal, but either offers advantages over the closed source model. Either of them respects “more” of what I believe are fundamental human rights. I believe in meritocracy, a person should have influence over their life in proportion to how much they participate in their own life. It just feels like common sense, this creates the least amount of misery in society as long as there is a minimum standard of living. I don’t believe in competition for subsistence. I believe there is a subsistence line which applies, to water, food, shelter, knowledge, and software. I also believe the line of subsistence is a sliding scale which moves up over time, call it standard of living. This makes balance between freedom and community a moving target.

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