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


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