At the beach over the weekend, I read Anthem by Ayn Rand. Now before you write me off as the kind of guy that would go around telling people he reads Ayn Rand for fun, let me just say in my defense that this is really the first full Ayn Rand book I have read. And it is only 105 pages long. Having read this, I’d totally read the CliffsNotes for The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged (which is like 1200 pages long).
Rand originally titled Anthem as “Ego” and you can definitely tell why. It is about a futuristic world where people are kinda back in the dark ages technologically-speaking, and live in a collective where people have numbers rather than names, are assigned jobs for life, and have forgotten the word “I” (yes, totally annoying… in the first ten chapters, the main character uses the royal “we” to refer to himself).
It seems like Ayn Rand has been back in the news lately, and I’ve seen her name bandied about in political arguments quite a bit, especially regarding healthcare reform. So it made me think, if Ayn Rand’s core philosophy was about maintaining the supremacy of the individual, what she calls “rational self-interest,” and she rejected the idea that the collective good should be put before the good of the individual, what would she think about the open source movement?
After all, I used to remember seeing stories with proprietary companies referring to open source as socialism all the time, although it doesn’t seem to happen as much these days. More and more of the biggest companies are embracing open source software and the concept of open source is more mainstream than ever.
So surely Ayn Rand would hate open source, right? Not so fast. Here are two good reasons why Ayn Rand might totally dig open source:
The original title for Anthem gives a hint at the first reason. In the extremely socialistic, Borg-like world Ayn creates in the novella, no one maintains any individuality at all, people don’t even have real names, and they serve the will of the state with every minute of their day. There is zero tolerance for individual pursuit or achievement.
In the open source world, there is great tolerance of ego. In fact, one could even say that individual pursuit of glory and discovery might be at the very heart of what makes open source work. In an open source world, developers can work on any projects that interest them. They can ignore the projects that don’t interest them, even if their talents applied there would help the common good tremendously.
And the open source movement loves its superstars, the people who have made it to the top of the meritocracy through good work and good ideas. These are the people who are swarmed at conferences– I’ve even seen people ask for autographs from some of the top developers at Red Hat.
Open source celebrates the role of the individual at every turn. Perhaps Ayn Rand would view open source as a tool to organize rationally self-interested people into groups sharing common interests and motivations.
Ayn Rand strongly believes the individual should never sacrifice his freedom, to government or other men. The open source movement strongly protects the freedoms of not only its developers, but its users as well. In fact, pre-dating open source, Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, defined these basic freedoms back in 1986 that still hold true in the open source world:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
While I think Ayn would probably chafe at the “help your neighbor” and “whole community benefits” bits, the overall concept of these freedoms is that, as an individual, you can pretty much do what you want with the code: look at it, use it, modify it, redistribute it.
Perhaps this focus on individual freedoms for users makes open source even more palatable to an Ayn Rand worldview than proprietary software would be. After all, proprietary software actually tries pretty hard to restrict some of your individual freedoms.
I went to Google to see if anyone else was making a connection between Ayn Rand and open source. There are a few interesting links. My favorite: it turns out that a writer for The Atlasphere, an Ayn Rand fanboy site, came to a similar conclusion in this blog post from last year. A quote:
Since open-source software is available free of cost, most people outside the movement — and within it — mistakenly see it as an altruistic undertaking.
Quite a few of them have even forgotten that it is not intended to be free as in “free beer” but free as in “freedom of speech.”
Either way, most of them fail to realize that there is an individualism at its core. And it is this spirit, not altruism, which lies at the heart of the open source movement.
So that makes two of us… anyone else have a view on what Ayn might think about open source? I know there are some Ayn Rand superfans out there… let me know what you think by voting below.