The Market Loves Linux (That's Why It's Thriving)

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My wife often
rolls her eyes at me, because once I find a new hobby I latch onto
it as though life depended on it. The more arbitrary the nature
of the hobby, the less she’s impressed with it. So imagine her immense
delight when, a year ago, the only thing I would talk about with
her was Linux.

From Ignorance
to Bliss

Yes, Linux.
When I was in middle school and high school, Linux was a strange,
inaccessible beast. The kind of thing only the most dedicated computer
nerds knew anything about. Although I had seen it in action once,
all I gathered from the experience was that Linux amounted to a
lot of garbled text manipulated by dry command lines. Furthermore,
it didn’t run any useful programs. I simply couldn’t see the point
in using it.

Many years
later, I was clicking around Wikipedia one day and stumbled on a
treasure-trove of articles on Linux. To my surprise, I discovered
that not only was Linux still around, it was thriving! Next to the
articles were beautiful pictures of clean desktops and full-featured
applications.

This discovery
left me in disbelief. Was it true that Linux could be functional,
user-friendly, even aesthetically pleasing? My gut reaction was
that it wasn’t possible. Operating systems are complex animals,
and they need constant tinkering and improvement by professionals
to function. They need commercial support and proprietary business
models. Sure, Windows had its issues, but could a bunch of unorganized
programmers working in their free time really do better?

Yet slowly
I realized that everything I enjoyed most about my computer experience
was now rooted in free and/or open-source software and services.
I was already taking Firefox for granted, using a free media player,
constantly looking things up in Wikipedia, and making extensive
use of Gmail, Reader, and other Google applications. In fact, the
only Microsoft product I still used with any regularity was the
basic Windows XP operating system itself.

It was clear
to me that all of these free and/or open-source products were outdoing
their corporate, end-user-pays competition. And if this could be
true for web browsers, music and video players, CD/DVD burners,
spreadsheets, etc., then why not also for the operating system?

The time had
come to leave Microsoft behind for good.

How do I describe
what it was like to switch to Linux? Do you remember those first
few months after you switched from Internet Explorer to Firefox?
It was only a web browser, but suddenly your entire world seemed
to change. Pop-ups, ads, spyware, harmful viruses, security risks
of every variety: gone. The program loaded mere seconds after you
clicked on its icon, would perform tasks without delay, and rarely
froze or “encountered a problem and had to quit.” And tabbed browsing!
The world of web surfing had truly been revolutionized.

Linux is to
Windows what Firefox is to Internet Explorer, and it is so even
more intensely — in fact, by orders of magnitude. Firefox gives
Windows users some security for the web, but in Linux there are
no known viruses or spyware programs, period. I found a massive
increase in the performance of my older machine after leaving XP’s
bloated frame behind. My computer feels sleek, responsive, and much
more streamlined. (Start-up comparison times: XP, about three minutes;
Linux, about one minute.) And then there is the wonderful, liberating
feeling of using free, open-source software almost exclusively —
including several of the applications that I enjoyed while in Windows.

And I’m not
the only one who feels this way. The market loves Linux; that is
why it is thriving.

Linux as
Example of Market Decentralization

I admit that
I am a helpless holistic thinker. In my twisted view of the world,
economics, ethics, theology, aesthetics, political philosophy, relationships,
hobbies, etc. all converge in various places and share foundational
truths. The result is that I often cause others to raise an eyebrow
as I make comparisons. Yet I can’t help but draw a few libertarian
observations from my experience with Linux, including the free and
open-source software communities at large.

Linux serves
as a marvelous example of market processes in action: human beings
with harmonious goals helping each other reach them. It has been
developed through decentralized collaboration by programmers from
around the world.

In Leonard
Read’s great essay, I,
Pencil
, there may not be a single person who knows how to
build the pencil, but there can be a single visionary who brings
it about. The entrepreneur coordinates the efforts of his workers,
raw material providers, and factory equipment. Open source software
has taken this one step further: who could have guessed that a project
with no central planner in any meaningful sense could have
had such powerful results? Yet here it is, at once the product of
thousands of hands, and still unified.

The Linux community
embodies a fantastic spirit of voluntary association, which should
be cited more often by libertarians as an example of how cooperation
benefits everyone. Anti-capitalist interlocutors often make the
assumption that libertarians would actually prefer a world
chalk-full of toll booths and pay-as-you-go schemes for things that
are currently free! (This kind of twisted thinking led to one Microsoft
official labeling Linux as a
kind of “communism.”
Fortunately, these remarks have been thoroughly
debunked
elsewhere — Linux is capitalist!)

There is no
greater betrayal of libertarian values than intruding on voluntary
interaction and foisting some other ideal onto innocent victims.
The free software community is constituted by countless developers
sacrificing millions of collective hours in service of others. What
could be more libertarian than simply allowing them to continue
such noble activity in peace? Everyone benefits.

Open Source
and the Stateless Society

Linux may even
serve as an example of how important projects will function in a
post-state society. All open-source software invariably uses geographically-spread
efforts. Contributors are connected because of common interests
and goals, not through mere coincidence of location. Over time,
organizations — and especially those dealing in digital services
— are going to become increasingly untethered by geography. Were
the State to dissolve, the importance and benefits of these arrangements
would only become more apparent.

Open-source
projects are a logical development of the division of labor. In
today’s market, if I set out to run an efficient software company,
I do not need to own suburban office space, an office network, meeting
rooms, or even any colleagues living in the same country. I need
not even directly oversee their efforts or control the boundaries
of what they may do. The attempt to centralize these resources into
a single geographical location and point of command can, in fact,
dramatically limit my potential talent pool.

Recognizing
the meaninglessness of political borders to human flourishing is
an important step in societal development. Open source projects
unlock this mystery before our eyes and serve as examples of social
cooperation that stretches beyond traditional boundaries.

Switching
to Linux (Closing Sentiments)

Linux is not
for everyone, to be sure. (At least, not yet.) The most commonly
asked question by those considering it is “But will it run program
X?” The amount of software available for Linux systems is rather
impressive
, but not yet comprehensive. Dedicated gamers and
those who are using their computer for specialized professional
applications often find that they cannot always do what they need
to with Linux alone.

Yet the number
of people who use at least one of their computers (or laptops) solely
for word processing, e-mail, web browsing, and the occasional game
grows by the day. Unfortunately, most of these users have not considered
the possibility of breaking away from Windows and the advantages
to be had in an alternate operating system. This is a tragedy, because
there has never been a better time to make the switch.

For the vast
majority of ordinary users, any one of the most popular distributions
(for example, Ubuntu,
openSUSE, or
MEPIS) can change
your home computing experience for the better. For those willing
to do just a little bit of research, it is very easy to find a distribution
of Linux that suits exactly your needs. There are distributions
of every variety and in every major language in existence. Several
of them are even more user-friendly and easier to install and run
than a base Windows package.

There is also,
as I hope to have shown, an important ideological advantage in switching
to Linux. The benefits of free and open-source software are ripe
for picking and exciting to explore. Linux fosters an incredible
community of helpful enthusiasts dedicated to enriching each other’s
computing experience. It taps into the great and noble “art for
art’s sake” tradition of human endeavor. Its developers do not profit
from (or justify aggression using) invalid claims to
intellectual property
. They do not use the State as their strong
man to muscle out competitors. They do not suffer from, as Microsoft
and even Apple do, the insulation from market feedback that all
massive, bureaucratic corporations incur.

It is one of
the finest examples of beneficial social cooperation in our society.

My thanks
to Robert Wicks and Manuel Lora for helpful feedback and ideas for
this article.

September
11, 2008

Daniel
Coleman [send him mail]
is a freelance editor who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. He spends
his free time conversing with friends about libertarianism and Thomist
philosophy.

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