Blogs > Liberty and Power > Voluntary Cooperation or "The Market"?

Mar 31, 2008 11:57 am


Voluntary Cooperation or "The Market"?



Stealing a meme from Tyler Cowen, here's the best paragraph I've read this morning. It's Cato's Timothy Lee making the case for why libertarians should be supportive of free, open-source software initiatives. He argues that they represent the kind of de-centralized voluntary cooperation that libertarians should support and criticizes some libertarian tech folks for labeling them overly "communal" and the like. In making that argument he writes:

So libertarians are right to criticize policies aimed at accomplishing communal goals via coercive means. But some libertarians have gotten so used to defending the market against those who want to impose collectivism that they start criticizing purely voluntary efforts to organize people on more communal lines. They are forgetting that libertarianism is not necessarily about increasing the role of for–profit enterprise in every aspect of our lives. Commercial activity is one alternative to statism, and an extremely important one. But it's just one possible mode of cooperation, and it's not necessarily the best choice in every situation.

His opening paragraph applies this argument to co-ops as compared to commercial grocery stores. Lee is quite right here and over the years libertarians have become better at distinguishing being "pro-market" from being "pro-business." That's a good thing. But perhaps we now need to be even more careful and make the distinction between being "pro-market" and "pro-voluntary cooperation."

As an intellectual paradigm, post-WWII classical liberal/libertarian thought has not paid nearly enough attention to forms of voluntary social cooperation that exist outside of the market. Our esteemed colleague David Beito's book is one obvious notable exception of course. But beyond that, what have classical liberals had to say about the myriad ways in which humans organize their lives that do not involve the realm of monetary calculation? My own work on the family is my own small attempt to fill this gap.

Long ago, Mises argued that economics (or what he called "catallactics") was just a subset of the broader study of society that he termed "praxeology." (In a more intellectually ideal world, it would be called "sociology.") He suggested that there were other branches of praxeology yet undeveloped. In the 21st century, libertarian thinkers need to begin those explorations. We, I would argue, have a glut of economists and a shortage of sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and political scientists looking at these other forms of voluntary social cooperation.


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Steven Horwitz - 6/26/2007

I actually agree with you totally Peter. My point was just that there are those who argue that more decentralized forms are somehow more "communal" and therefore libertarians should be skeptical. Read Lee's piece to see what I'm talking about.

My broader point was just that libertarians should be open to whatever forms of organization people agree upon voluntarily. There's no politics to those choices. I wasn't arguing that open-source stuff was somehow "more" libertarian.


Steven Horwitz - 6/26/2007

I actually agree with you totally Peter. My point was just that there are those who argue that more decentralized forms are somehow more "communal" and therefore libertarians should be skeptical. Read Lee's piece to see what I'm talking about.

My broader point was just that libertarians should be open to whatever forms of organization people agree upon voluntarily. There's no politics to those choices. I wasn't arguing that open-source stuff was somehow "more" libertarian.


Peter G. Klein - 6/26/2007

Steve, I'm not sure I see the connection between open-source production and libertarianism. Isn't Microsoft also the result of private, voluntary cooperation among investors, workers, suppliers, customers, and so on? (In the mixed economy, of course, companies like Microsoft benefit from the state, but so do cooperatives, e.g., agricultural cooperatives, rural electric companies, etc.)

The choice between decentralized modes of production (loosely organized networks of independent producers, worker- or patron-owned cooperatives, firms using "market-based management," etc.) and more centralized forms (traditional, hierarchically organized companies) strikes me as a technical, managerial question, not a political one. Each mode of organization has benefits and costs. But how is either more "libertarian" than other?


Tim Sydney - 6/24/2007

There are plenty of "open source" purists who exaggerate the "non-profit" nature of Open Source projects and sometimes pepper their discussion with "quasi-communistic" or "quasi-socialist" rhetoric. At the same time there are plenty of "pro-capitalist" people who criticise Open Source for the same reason.

They are of course both wrong. What doesn't get a lot of attention is just how much mainstream IT corporations have contributed to the Open Source movement via donations, sponsorship etc.

Google (and Netscape) for example has contributed significantly to Firefox (Mozilla). There is mutual commercial benefit in this arrangement. Microsoft and Apple both have their own internet browsers, Google doesn't. By sponsoring Firefox they gain leverage in the market and help forestall the possibility of say Microsoft and / or Apple supplying browsers with built in linkages to say Microsoft and / or Apple owned search engines. As it happens Firefox uses and is closely integrated with the Google search engine and Google searches generate much of the revenue of the Mozilla Corporation (the for profit arm of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation). I believe IBM and HP are also major supporters of Firefox too.

Another example of this commercialised Open Source is the "Open Office" suite of desktop productivity tools. These were originally developed by Sun Microsystems as a competitor to Microsoft Office etc. Rather than close down the venture and have customers wander off to Microsoft and Apple 'for good', Sun "open sourced" the product keeping the customer community going and enlisting their participation in it's on-going development.

The fact that many Open Source projects are "non-profit" doesn't mean that they don't serve a "for profit" strategy. This may deflate the "communard" rhetoric of many open source enthusiasts but it should be a positive in the eyes of free marketeers.


Sheldon Richman - 6/23/2007

The January-February 2007 issue of The Freeman had the excellent article "Open-Source Software: Who Needs Intellectual Property?" by David K. Levine and Michele Boldrin. It's here: http://tinyurl.com/2pochq

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