Open the borders

August 11, 2009

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.