Open the borders

Open source culture will destroy the nation state. Maybe.

I am reading Wikinomics, a book by Tapscott and Williams about how the open source approach is changing business culture and economics, not just in software but in many other areas. I just read a section which discussed the common complaint of critics that open source culture is a new kind of socialism, inimical to free enterprise and the profit motive. They interviewed Linus Torvalds, who said that the opposite was true. Linux, he says, is like the road system. Once it exists, it is much easier for people to form businesses and make money. It makes economic sense, even for competitors, to develop shared infrastructure.

Using the road system as an analogy sparked a thought in me.  Road systems are normally built by the government. We live in nation states where public goods are provided by the state, and free enterprise thrives on the back of this free infrastructure.  When we talk of “socialism” we normally think of what is really state socialism, where the number and degree of such state-provided public goods is maximised, and the state control of behaviour is also maximised. In our more typical modern mixed economies, state-provided goods are less extensive and we have partial freedom. Production of public goods is resourced by financial taxation, in which the citizen has no choice, and implemented by a professional civil service.

In open source culture however, parties with common interests come together by choice and develop shared goods. Note that these days “open source” does not mean thousands of amateurs in their bedrooms doing stuff for fun. It means staff at  IBM and Sun spending a percentage of their time working for Linux or Apache or Python as an approved activity. So production of public goods is again produced by taxation, but its taxation of effort, and the corporations taxed have a free choice about how much to put in.

Possibly more importantly, the communities formed, and the public goods constructed, do not follow national boundaries. They are horizontally global and vertically shallow. Like multi-national corporations, they begin to make nation states seem irrelevant; but the structures they can form are much more fluid than those rigid corporations.

You can drive for days across the USA without border controls or changing money. The same is now true in Europe. A short while back I went to a meeting in France. I flew to Frankfurt and caught a train to Strasbourg. It was only on the way home I realised I had been in two different “countries”. Actually Alsace is pretty much its own place, not quite France and not quite Germany. You can have sauerkraut and citron presse for lunch. Every day at home I roam the world on my broadband connection.

The nation state is quite a new thing in the history of mankind, but we have gotten in the habit of seeing it as somehow inevitable. How long before it seems a distant memory of savage times ?

Time to brush off your copies of Kropotkin and Proudhon.

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11 Responses to Open the borders

  1. BlackGriffen says:

    Does the book mention how to deal with the freeloader problem? I mean, freeloaders are pretty meaningless for software, media, plans and other ephemeris where their use by others incurs no cost to those who originated the “idea” (as long as the user takes on the task of producing the physical copy). With things like food, roads, public health, energy, etc there is a very real scarcity in as much as their use depletes them somewhat, leaving less for the producer.

    If they don’t mention how to handle freeloaders, and going to the trouble of collecting a “use fee” for many of these things is not as efficient as just collecting a tax from everyone (ie the increased effort of collecting and enforcing collection of the fee means that less of the public good gets produced per public dollar put in), then it sounds like a Libertarian pipe dream to me.

    • andyxl says:

      I haven’t finished the book yet … but its only about business. The extrapolation to politics is just me musing. As to how to “handle freeloaders” this sounds like an emotional/moral problem, not a practical one. The main point of what I have read in the book so far is that in recent years companies that have opened up their IP and their effort (like IBM and Procter and Gambol) have gotten FAR more back for free than they have given away.

  2. Iain Steele says:

    “The nation state is quite a new thing in the history of mankind, but we have gotten in the habit of seeing it as somehow inevitable. How long before it seems a distant memory of savage times ?”

    I think its more cyclical than that. Large “empires” like Europe and the USA tend to grow out of wars and subsequently people getting fed up with them and joining together. However they have not proved historically that stable (Rome, the Soviet Union etc.) as over time people decide some “group” is more favoured than others and tend to break up again. For example at the moment the UK is slowly dissolving into separate England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island I suspect.

    Also I don’t see technology as a game changer here. Sure bits can flow easily around the world and new, flat collaborations emerge to drive certain technological progress. However the atoms that have to be moved around to build a road are not affected. Someone still needs to do that locally.

  3. Nick Cross says:

    The Roman Empire changed a lot in terms of the area that it covered and where the power lay over the 1000 years. People kept the name for political reasons but it was not a stable continuous empire for 1000 years.

  4. Garret Cotter says:

    Hi Andy, my first post to your blog, prompted slightly by a dull afternoon at Paranal!

    This is basically ideal libertarian socialism or libertarian capitaliam – I guess the former as you name Prodhon and Kropotkin. People of the extreme left end right have been salivating about them for a century without getting close – is there anything really novel in this book? The “freeloaders” problem mentioned above can be a catch-all for so many many things… how do you fund civil and military defence (you *will* need it!), how do you get people to train as medics, etc etc. In other woeds, how do you avoid sliding back from the ideal into a Soviet-style situation…

  5. andyxl says:

    Welcome Garret. I’d better make something clear … the book I am reading has NOTHING to do with libertarian socialism etc – thats purely my extrapolation. The book is only about how great open source is for business. They don’t get into social or political issues at all. The authors would very certainly be horrified to be connected with anarchism etc. So its just me being playful.

    I am also very much aware that the anarchism thing has been a pipe dream (or is it wet dream ?) for a hundred and fifty years. Asked to design my ideal society I really don’t know what I would actually go for … but … I do really think that internet transparency in general, and open source culture in particular, is very likely to be disruptive of current economic and political power structures. Who knows where that will end up ?

    • Garret Cotter says:

      Many apologies, Andy, it wasn’t my intention to paint a picture of you on the barricades in 1871! :) I’ll get hold of the book and have a read. I do find the general idea very appealing of course but my feeling at the moment (thinking in particular of the relationship between Debian and Mark Shuttleworth) is that we’re seeing little groups of people using this new opportunity, but they’re getting pounced on very quickly by The Market… whether that’s stifling or empowering, I’m not really sure! I think we need a bit of time to see whether anarcho-informational (did I just invent a new term?) projects/products can build up a critical size and truly compete. It would be nice to see.. but who indeed knows?

  6. [...] my last post, a profound analysis of the links between Linux and anarcho-syndicalist communes, got the lowest [...]

  7. Dave says:

    Hasn’t globalised free market capitalism already eroded the nation state into irrelevance?

  8. I appreciate the variety of posts that you write..Keep it up Andy !!

    Thanks

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