quick notes on Freedom and “Michael Hardt presents Thomas Jefferson”

Jefferson, by http://flickr.com/photos/jamiedfw/[If man is meant to be free] the secret will be found in making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence… so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical.

–Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Monticello, Feb. 2, 1816

I spent the morning writing about Freedom, and then, post unfinished, went shopping for some lawyerly necessaries. Along the way I wandered into the Apple store, played with an iPhone, and got my confidence in freedom shaken a bit- the thing is very, very good; polished in a way that no current free desktop app (much less the N800 or openmoko) are.

So I spent the afternoon reading a selection of the writings of Thomas Jefferson, hoping to get some inspiration both on the writing of manifestos and on their implementation. The work is titled ‘Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence’, but it is only in part about what is probably the most successful revolutionary manifesto (even if we don’t often think of it as such.) It contains an essay by Michael Hardt, along with a selection of Jefferson’s letters on the problems of rebellion and revolution. In particular, it focuses on the problem of transition: what happens when your revolution is still young and shaky, what happens when your friends try revolution and it fails, how often revolutions should occur, and so on.

It didn’t exactly make me feel too much better about the iPhone, but it was stimulating. In particular, the talk of France (where during Jefferson’s lifetime a democratic revolution occurred, got violent, and then resulted in Napoleon) and of Shays’ Rebellion were both quite interesting- two events that could have shaken the faith of a young experiment in democracy, but which Jefferson took in stride, and to some extent celebrated or used as teaching moments. We are still in the very early stages of our experiment with social production, and no doubt some things (like the iPhone) will shake our certainty in what we do, so there are perhaps some lessons to be learned there.

Similarly, the discussion of the frequency of rebellion was interesting. Jefferson posits that revolutions (of a sort) should occur every 19 to 20 years, specifically because (given the 55-year life expectancy of his day) every 19 years a majority of the adult population will no longer have given assent to the constitutions formed by the previous generation. They might passively assent, and even participate in government, but Jefferson argues that without active participation in the forming of a new constitution, they are not really committed to the government that results from it, nor fully understanding of what it means. [The parallels to GPL v3 as a periodic re-commitment (or not) to a particular vision of freedom are so obvious that I forgot to actually write them in here when I first wrote this down ;)

I could go on and on- there is discussion of education, of the role of self-governance as a means of education, etc., much of it relevant to free software and more generally to social production. Really interesting stuff. But instead of rambling and boring people, I’ll just go finish Wealth of Networks instead ;)

5 thoughts on “quick notes on Freedom and “Michael Hardt presents Thomas Jefferson””

  1. Not bored here! Thanks for voicing your thoughts in this area — we really are part of a revolution here, but it is easy to let the FUD seep in. Keep lighting your light.

  2. It seems to me there’s a pretty important means/ends distinction that’s worth minding here. The “ought” statement that “all else being equal, free software is better than non-free software” is self-evidently true. The freedom to examine, modify, and re-distribute software are good in and of themselves, because they allow people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do with their software.

    On the other hand, the statement “peer production is the most effective way to produce software” is not obviously true. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that with existing economic conditions and methods for organizing peer production, it is false for at least some categories of software. More to the point, there’s no logical connection between these statements. One can perfectly well believe the former while rejecting (or at least being skeptical of) the latter.

    The iPhone example simply proves the latter point. So far, top-down, commercial development processes are the best way to produce phone software. But there’s no reason the iPhone should shake your “confidence in freedom.” The iPhone would be an even better product if the software were released under the GPL. I just happens not to be in Apple’s interest to do so.

    There’s an obvious parallel to Jefferson’s work. The end is liberty. The means include revolutions, checks and balances, democracy, federalism, etc. The fact that one of the means proves not to work (violent revolution in France, the Articles of Confederation) doesn’t in any way discredit the value of the end. It just meant they had to be more determined and clever in how they pursued it.

    By the same token, there is more than one route to free software. Samba, for example, cloned an existing proprietary protocol rather than starting a new one. The Mozilla project persuaded Netscape to subsidize its efforts in a way that probably wasn’t in Netscape’s interests but was very much in the interests of the free software community. The fact that the free software movement hasn’t yet found a similar method for conquering the cell phone market doesn’t demonstrate that there’s anything wrong with freedom. It just demonstrates that freedom is sometimes hard to achieve.

  3. Thanks for voicing a sentiment that is certainly well-known to each free software enthusiast/developer/user: the doubt whether the “right” thing can be successful, especially when being confronted with some class A closed-source software/product.

    Nice comment/summary from Tim.

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