Democracy and Software Freedom

As part of a broader discussion of democracy as the basis for a just socio-economic system, Séverine Deneulin summarizes Robert Dahl’s Democracy, which says democracy requires five qualities:

First, democracy requires effective participation. Before a policy is adopted, all members must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known to others as to what the policy should be.

Second, it is based on voting equality. When the moment arrives for the final policy decision to be made, every member should have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes should be counted as equal.

Third, it rests on ‘enlightened understanding’. Within reasonable limits, each member should have equal and effective opportunities for learning about alternative policies and their likely consequences.

Fourth, each member should have control of the agenda, that is, members should have the exclusive opportunity to decide upon the agenda and change it.

Fifth, democratic decision-making should include all adults. All (or at least most) adult permanent residents should have the full rights of citizens that are implied by the first four criteria.

From An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach“, Ch. 8 – “Democracy and Political Participation”.

Poll worker explains voting process in southern Sudan referendum” by USAID Africa Bureau via Wikimedia Commons.

It is striking that, despite talking a lot about freedom, and often being interested in the question of who controls power, these five criteria might as well be (Athenian) Greek to most free software communities and participants- the question of liberty begins and ends with source code, and has nothing to say about organizational structure and decision-making – critical questions serious philosophers always address.

Our licensing, of course, means that in theory points #4 and #5 are satisfied, but saying “you can submit a patch” is, for most people, roughly as satisfying as saying “you could buy a TV ad” to an American voter concerned about the impact of wealth on our elections. Yes, we all have the theoretical option to buy a TV ad/edit our code, but for most voters/users of software that option will always remain theoretical. We’re probably even further from satisfying #1, #2, and #3 in most projects, though one could see the Ada Initiative and GNOME OPW as attempts to deal with some aspects of #1, #3, and #4

This is not to say that voting is the right way to make decisions about software development, but simply to ask: if we don’t have these checks in place, what are we doing instead? And are those alternatives good enough for us to have certainty that we’re actually enhancing freedom?

16 thoughts on “Democracy and Software Freedom”

  1. Those requirements don’t make a lot of sense when the resource the community is allocating has a marginal cost of zero.

    For example: Python author Guido van Rossum has been given the ironic title of “benevolent dictator for life” in the Python community. However, AFAICT he really does make the (informed) decisions about where he wants to take the language. So where does the irony come from? It is the fact that the keys to his “kingdom” are a single git clone away from anyone with the time and inclination to fork the language. That nobody stages what would be such an effortless takeover of “the goods” is a fairly clear sign that the Python community is vibrant and healthy.

    On the other hand, this makes it all the more frustrating when the wider free software community doesn’t seem to reach the wider public. That’s why I think the Ada Initiative, OPW, and other programs are vital.

  2. Those criteria are missing some rather essential bits, most notably some additional checks and balances to stop the tyranny of the majority. 50%+1 people have no particularly innate right to tell the other 50%-1 what to do or what rights they have.

  3. I have always been baffled by the idea that (open source) software projects ought to be run like Western democratic countries, and while I have heard the claim many times, not once was it accompanied by an even halfway satisfying argument for why it should be so.

    The way I see it, the author(s) of a piece of software own that software in every possible moral sense. That they give the right to essentially “do what you want” with their creation to everyone else is a great and altruistic gift. I cannot imagine an ethical universe where giving such a gift would invite liabilities of any kind, or any entitlement on the side of the receiver to anything, least of all “democratic” participation without previous investment in the form of useful work.

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