Currently in the U.S., the government is running television advertisements showing young kids (who presumably have tried illegal drugs) saying things like “I bought some bombs for terrorists”, or “I helped kill children”. The implication is that using drugs is the same as supporting terrorists. I don’t think this campaign is resonating too well with American kids, since people think of drug kingpins as being everything non-Arab, non-Islamist. Colombians sell drugs on TV, and Arabs get their hands chopped off for shoplifting, right? But regardless of how poorly the ads get the message across, it is true that the drug trade is a huge part of the “shadow economy”. And the unregulated “shadow economy” is how money flows from suppliers to terrorist operations. Of course, there is a whole lot of other people who use the shadow economy (including many groups in the U.S. government). And to say that illegal drug money is unregulated is a tautology — if it’s not legal, it must by definition be unregulated. Drugs form such a large part of the shadow economy simply because the demand for drugs is not declining, and these drugs are not legalized. Reducing demand (if possible) could certainly cut into the effectiveness of the shadow economy in funding terrorists and governments. But the easiest way would seem to just allow people to legally get what they want (and apparently get anyway), and bring the value transfer back into the observable and regulated economy.
So here’s the rub. People are going to exchange valuable goods and services with one another, and value will flow throughout human society like currents in the water. There is no way to stop this. Dollars are just one way that people tokenise value exchange — there are plenty of alternative schemes alive and thriving. However, currency like the “dollar” has been the least biased, least corrupt, and least racist (dollars are color blind) form of value exchange that humans have ever contrived. This alone should make it an ethical issue for people to reject anything that pushes value exchange underground. But the lack of transparency in unregulated monetary systems is the critical factor that makes such systems unfit for any system that claims to put power in the hands of the people. How do the people know who is influencing their leaders, when the majority of the economy comprises quid-pro, gift exchange, and favors? How do people measure the degree to which others are contributing and creating value for society? You could argue that, in a democracy, it is not essential that everyone be able to know that I wrote some code for my neighbor, and in exchange he installed my garage door. However, a democratic society must insist on having transparency in the significant value flows. The tendency of warriors for “social justice” to favor opaque value-transfer schemes appears particularly hypocritcal (or stupid) to me. Detecting and remedying social injustices or imbalances is impossible if you can’t even measure who is benefitting from whom, and who has accrued what.
It’s a matter of ethics. Shadow economies cripple civil society and make democracy impossible. People generally prefer to exchange value in objective and transparent systems. Generally, the value exchange goes underground when the coercive influence of law refuses to allow the value exchange to take place in regulated form. This is why people don’t use their credit cards to buy drugs or hookers. This is why ultra-high taxes cause people to start smuggling and bartering (and ultimately lead to reduced tax revenues).
So how about the GPL? The GPL sets the terms on value exchanges in such a way that:
- The aggregate value of the contribution cannot be measured objectively. The author gets the same amount of money (if any) regardless of whether one person or a million perceives value in it.
- All people who seek to add value to the code are expressly legally forbidden from ever releasing that value into society in a way that can be measured objectively.
The second bullet-point (the “viral clause”) is the putrid part. In one sense, it is no different from someone saying, “you are free to use this code, and all derivative works must donate $10 to the Red Cross, and must include this clause”. What is wrong with that — most people like the Red Cross, and this would help leverage your software’s value into money for a good cause. And people who don’t like the Red Cross don’t have to use your source code; it’s your code after all, right? But this is the issue, if you buy-in to my “Red Cross” license, you support my personal social cause, which is not such a bad cause. It’s pretty strange for a software license to also try to force you into accepting someone’s social cause, but I guess we can live with it. But what social cause does the GPL ask you to accept? In essence, the GPL is upholding the notion that intellectual property exchange belongs in an opaque, unregulated, easily-corruptable and biased economy. In fact, OSS/FSF advocates are quick to point to the supposed benefits of a “gift culture”, where things like reputation, esteem, and contributions are the currency.
Most would agree that it is OK (albeit childish) to add philisophical “viruses” to software licenses. But why is it that the only well-known software license to do so is supporting an idea like abolition of objective value measurements in intellectual property exchange? The only answer is that certain people are actually buying the idea. Intellectual property is becoming the most significant form of value being exchanged in western society, and it would be devestating to democratic society to have this value exchange become opaque. Admittedly, it is not as if the relatiosnhip of IP to money is about to collapse anytime soon, and any strain being put on the system right now is probably due to strain brought on by overreaching laws than by GPL. But the idea that the most significant form of value being exchanged in a civil society should be exchanged in a way that is opaque and “gift based” is horribly cynical and unethical.
I’ll defend to the death the right of free people to exchange gifts when they choose. But I can’t bring myself to feel love for people who try to twist the law to make it illegal for value to be exchanged in an objectively measurable manner in the vast majority of cases where people prefer to do so.
Today I finished reading “A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale”. Seale was the co-founder of the Black Panthers, and was known as a hot-tempered firebrand. It’s got to be the most sincere and “real” autobiography I’ve ever read. Like many others would, Seale boasts sometimes, and sometimes goes to great lengths to rationalize his behavior as having more honorable motives than it probably really did. And he unquestionably leaves out lots of details about his activities as Black Panther leader. But where he falls down on presenting “Bobby Seale the Image”, he really reveals “Bobby Seale the Person”. When reading the book, you feel like you really get to know his personality, and what made him tick. One thing I found interesting (though credible) was the way that he didn’t see things in a moralistic, “good vs. evil” sense (like my rant above), and he wasn’t necessarily motivated by “doing the right thing.” His worldview was, IMO, much more “tao” than that.