Two Common Errors

A society where I am free to own you as a slave is not more free than a society that does not allow me to own you as a slave.

Owning slaves is a restriction on the freedom of others (the slaves). It reduces the sum total of human freedom in society. Yet how can this be if preventing it removes my freedom to own slaves, thereby also apparently reducing the sum total of freedom in society?

In fact preventing me from owning slaves does not restrict my freedom. It simply removes a means to an end, a demonstrably immoral means that also prevents others from pursuing their own ends (the slaves).

Banning slavery within society therefore increases the sum total of freedom within society. This can be explained in any number of ways, but the practical effects are clear.

A naive robust individualist might object that society is just an abstraction and it’s every man for himself. But society consists of individuals, robust or otherwise, and in saying that the sum total of human freedom in society is reduced we are simply saying that the probability of an individual’s freedom suffering is increased.

With the abolition of slavery in the West, Indentured Labour became popular. The intent of abolition was to free slaves, the effect of indentured labour was to remove the freedom of individuals. This ironised abolition. The forms of slavery and indentured labour might be different but their content and practical effects are similar, and deliberately so. Supporting human freedom meant opposing both despite one being legal and the other economic.

I mention this example because of two errors common made in discussing Free Software. (It is an extreme example, and if anyone has one less likely to offend that makes the same point I will gladly use it instead.)

The first is the claim that preventing people from removing the freedom of others as an end in itself is a reduction in freedom. This argument is usually made those who recommend the BSD licence for ethical rather than practical reasons. Indeed it is often the only “freedom” that is seen as worth defending. The flaws in this argument are obvious from the example above. Preventing people from removing the freedom of others is not an infraction on anyone’s freedom and will not prevent them from pursuing their ends within society.

The second is the claim that DRM or Tivoisation are technology rather than law and that Free Software licences have no business defending users against them. This argument is usually made by people who really should know better. The flaws in this argument are also obvious from our example. Free Software licences defend against the content of restrictions on freedom, not the form. To insist that a new form of restriction should not be defended against despite its effects is an aesthetic rather than an ethical argument.

Posted in Free Culture
3 comments on “Two Common Errors
  1. MJ Ray says:

    My, that’s a nice strawman you have there…
    As I understand it, the usual argument against total narrow TPM-bans is that it removes the freedom of the individual to temporarily surrender a freedom in order to receive some benefit. I feel that you’re looking at the freedom of the commander, rather than the freedom of the worker. Most TPM-bans so far have been like abolishing employment at the same time as abolishing slavery.
    Are you against employment too?

  2. Rob Myers says:

    There is nothing temporary about surrender to DRM (TPMs, TMs, etc.). This is part of the problem of DRM: it outlives the rights that it steals from producers. The effect of this may be local to an instance of a work, but this may be the entirety of an individual’s (or society’s) contact with the work.
    There is no benefit to surrender to DRM (TPMs, TMs, etc.). It is not an answer to the pleas of economic and technological incompetence on the part of corporations and individuals that are the only excuses ever marshalled in its defence.
    The technology (rather than the law) of DRM (watermarking, encryption, etc. but not Trusted Computing) may have benefits if used by individuals rather than third parties but the harm of DRM law far outweighs this.
    DRM law is pure harm economically and socially speaking. It cannot be pleaded for on behalf of individuals any more than tax breaks for the rich can be pleaded for on behalf of cleaning staff.
    As a subscriber to The Chap I am obviously against remunerated employment of all kinds, and as soon as I find a cure for this terrible malady I will be sure to let you know. 😉

  3. MJ Ray says:

    So what is unacceptable in requiring that the local TPM’d copy must not be the user’s only contact with the work? How you want to achieve that (parallel distribution and access to tools or whatever) is up to you. This is why GPLv3 is a free software licence, while CC-3 is not.
    The benefit to subverting TPM is to exploit subsidised hardware. Now that may not always be possible for some hardware or some TPM systems, but it may be possible for others.
    I also have concerns about some remunerated employment, but my preferred solution is closer to securing for the workers the means of production…