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Code Free or Die(): Why Hackers Are so Often Libertarians (dfranke.us)
56 points by dfranke on July 23, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

Rather, people with a naturally anti-authoritarian attitude tend to become attracted to programming.

I was actually a staunch progressive before entering the startup world. A few things turned me into a libertarian:

1) I realized that nearly every instance of what my college professors called a "market failure" was really an instance where there was a web of government regulations preventing me from starting a business to solve the problem ( such as health insurance, education, or corporate governance). Once you stop thinking, "How could the government solve this problem?" and start thinking, "How can I start a business to solve this problem?" your perspective on the world change dramatically.

2) The software industry is so new it hasn't had the time to earn government favors and protection. Thus an engineer pays a lot to the government, but gets virtually nothing in return. Other professions used to be this way, and were much more libertarian ( farmers being the original case, but also doctors, bankers, etc.). Long ago those professions started getting either direct government funding or laws protecting entry into their industry. They became dependent on government. Engineers are also wealthy enough that they are net losers from income redistribution. And finally, by working in the startup world, most engineers see the free market at its best, rather than only seeing the soulless corporate side.

3) I decided to actually read about this "Austrian economics" nonsense. I read a bunch of books from both sides and scoured the internet for arguments and counter-arguments. At the end, I was shocked to realize that Ron Paul was right. Before, I thought he was a nut-job and Austrians were just ignoramuses who had never even taken a college macroeconomics course. After, I was ready to don my tin foil hat :-)

" Once you stop thinking, "How could the government solve this problem?" and start thinking, "How can I start a business to solve this problem?" your perspective on the world change dramatically."

I have yet to encounter a critique of capitalism that can't be rephrased as a business plan. I think libertarianism as an ideology has survived for so long because it's adaptable in that way.

The software industry gets a heck of a lot from the government. It has been one of the top funders of development work, both as a customer and a direct employer. Many of the common software tools and technologies we use today wouldn't exist if not for government-sponsored research. In general I agree with your other points, but let's have a little balance.

The money the government took to fund stuff would have been used in another way. But maybe they are better investors than the market; how would we know?

E.g. Lisp, Darpa.

Software engineers in the US get "government favors and protection" from US immigration policy. If anyone in the world could move to the US and work here, without jumping through the hoops of visa regulations, then American programmers would face a lot more competition from non-citizens than we do now; the pointy-haired bosses could get most of the cost benefits of cheap foreign labor without the headaches associated with managing workers ten time zones away.

(Many other professions would also benefit from cheap labor and therefore we, as customers of the labor, would benefit from lower prices, but I think geeks are at risk of losing more than we gain.)

I hear a lot of libertarian geeks complain about the unfairness of the progressive income tax or the welfare state, but not so many complaining about the unfairness of our immigration policy.

I hear a lot of libertarian geeks complain about the unfairness of the progressive income tax or the welfare state, but not so many complaining about the unfairness of our immigration policy.

Then you must run with a different tribe of libertarian geeks than I do.

I'm a libertarian geek. And I complain about the unfairness of our immigration policy constantly. A few of the best hackers I know are from other countries.

I completely disagree that I'm "at risk more than I gain" from increased immigration. If they can do as good a job as me for less money, then that's the market, and I'll have to accept that. But really good programmers -- the top 5% that are 5-26 times more productive than the rest -- are always going to be rare, and it's worth a pay cut to be able to work with them.

Incidentally, with our current system, tech workers are often given a visa that is only good for the duration of their employment with a single company. That means, if my coworker wants to go to another company, he has to get a whole new visa, which is incredibly non-trivial. As a result, my employer can skimp on his pay, because of the added cost of changing jobs.

If they pay immigrants less, then that brings down the whole market, including my salary. If our doors were open, we'd have more immigrants, but they'd be more able to negotiate, and we'd all be on equal footing. More people means higher housing costs, the weight of which tends to spread out the population distribution and make workers more demanding.

Interesting comment. I agree with you somewhat in the absolute, but completely disagree with you when you consider the degree of protection relative to other fields.

Consider the difference between an American consumer who wants to 1) have a simple spreadsheet extension written, or 2) have a simple legal will drafted.

In case 1, the consumer can 1) hire someone with a PhD, MS, BS, or no degree at all in any field, 2) send the work overseas with minimal oversight and regulation, 3) bring a foreign worker into the US on an H1B or L1 visa (to a limited extent).

In case 2, the consumer can 1) hire a member of the state bar who attended an ABA accredited school. That's it. No other options.

Law is an extreme example, and lawyers are, as members of the judiciary, quasi-government officials themselves, so maybe this isn't representative. But even in relatively unregulated labor markets here in the US, there's still no specific visa program to bring people on. In fact, the late nobel prize winner in economics Milton Friedman, champion of free markets, actually called the H1B program a subsidy for the tech industry!

Milton Friedman scoffs at the idea of the government stocking a farm system for the likes of Microsoft and Intel. "There is no doubt," he says, "that the [H-1B] program is a benefit to their employers, enabling them to get workers at a lower wage, and to that extent, it is a subsidy."

link: http://www.computerworld.com/careertopics/careers/labor/stor...

So while US immigration policy, by not allowing everyone and anyone in, does indeed mess with free global labor markets, if anything it skews immigration in favor of foreign engineers who would like to come here, and against US Citizens in these fields. But I don't know anyone other than extremists who think that the US can have a truly open door immigration policy. The numbers would simply be too great. Instead, the US "only" accepts well over a million legal immigrants a year, not counting hundreds of thousands of work-related visas.

Keep in mind, in a true free labor market, I, as a programmer would face more competition, but I'd also benefit as a consumer from an increase in competition in the services I consume. By targeting high tech specifically with work visas, but leaving the other fields untouched, the market is probably more skewed than it would have been enforcing a skills-blind approach.

Lastly, plenty of high tech workers most definitely do complain about the unfairness of the policy. Most of the programmers I know are much angrier about the corporate control over the H1B's life than the presence of foreign workers. I know that the economic world is a positive-sum game, especially in wealth creating industries like high tech.

But the current approach of skewing immigration toward high tech workers while allowing employers to control the residency rights and green card application? I'm looking for the free market with a microscope dude, and I ain't seeing it.

Yes, doctors and lawyers are protected by non-immigration-related government policies that geeks don't benefit from. But most of the money you spend every day doesn't go to doctors and lawyers.

Consider your laptop. What proportion of the cost of a laptop can be attributed to the cost of wages for workers in the US? (Remember what Adam Smith said: the cost of everything in a free-market economy can be divided among "rent of land", "wages of labor", and "profit of stock".)

There's the cost of the longshoremen who unloaded it from the docks, the cost of the truck drivers who drove it across the country, the cost of the warehouse workers who put it on the shelf and then took it off again when you ordered it...on a per-laptop basis, I don't think those costs add very much to the price. So if the US opens its borders and people all over the world compete for truck-driving jobs, I don't think the cost of laptops is going to go down very much.

Oh yeah, I totally agree. It doesn't have to be a government sponsored union like the AMA or ABA to count as market manipulation.

My point was that software is among the most free labor markets in the US. This was in response to the point that engineers are hypocritical for not applying their libertarian leanings to foreign engineers who would like to move here without restrictions. My point was that 1) I plead guilty to this charge - I do not support unlimited immigration, though that would be the purest form of free markets, and 2) relative to other fields, software engineering is more open to foreign nationals than almost any other field in the US (rivaled only by crop picking - the other great employer-sponsered work visa program - and maybe that tells you something about software...)

Great, one more Austrian, welcome to the Club! :)

> I decided to actually read about this "Austrian economics" nonsense.

The Austrians are too doctrinaire for my taste. They do have some good insights that have been ignored by the mainstream. For example, the idea that cheep Central Bank credit leads to boom/bust economic cycles has gained a lot of mindshare in the wake of the mortgage mess. However, they tend to close their minds to cool ideas from other schools of thought.

> However, they tend to close their minds to cool ideas from other schools of thought.

That they definitely do. They reject positivism as an approach to economics on the basis that you can't do repeatable experiments with entire societies, preferring a deductive approach that yields statements that are correct but weak. But as a result, they miss out on theories that aren't quite rigorous but nonetheless have good (but imperfect) predictive value.

The trouble is, cheap central bank credit also led to the Great Depression and the 1970's stagflation, yet no one seems to learn the lesson. Perhaps that's why Austrians tend to sound like a broken record. I think the reason no one learns the lesson is that cheap credit is just too tempting for politicians ( and the people that vote for them). It seems like a free lunch - until the malinvestment piles up and the credit pyramid starts to topple.

Also, I'd note that Austrians tend to be much more knowledgeable of "mainstream" economics than mainstream economists are of Austrian economics ( see http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/04/austrian-economics.ht... and http://www.slate.com/id/9593, the latter article by Paul Krugman shows a stunning ignorance of what the Austrians are saying ).

The three biggest economic issues today are: 1) the stagnation of the American standard living since 1970 2) the massive trade deficit and the hollowing of the American economy 3) the financial crisis

All three of these problems are related to fiat currency, maturity mismatching, and inflationary policies by various banks. That's why I think the Austrians, while not perfect, are much closer to the truth than the other economic schools.

Don't overlook the Myers Briggs personality type. I'm betting a large portion of hackers fall into that INTP/INTJ or a similar type.

Thus we assume that people are rational, will act rationally and by extension, live peacefully with their neighbors.

However we are a small minority of the population.

Our personality type is drawn to systems work, the architecture of things. We strive to understand systems, whether it's a desktop PC or the government. The aesthetic we seek is a simple, logical architecture that can be explained and reasoned about.

Unfortunately, the world doesn't often meet our expectations. We are left with C++ not Lisp and a republic slipping towards totalitarianism, not an anarcho-capitalist paradise.

And conversely, hackers tend to assume more competence from their fellow human beings than is really present, and thus are surprised when people end up suffering due to their own stupidity. And since it's surprisingly stupid, hackers tend to be less compassionate to the folks affected.

But the problem is, suffering is still suffering whether it be stupid or not. A society with a destitute underclass suffering due to its own idiocy is still a society with a destitute underclass. The general definition of a "progressive" is someone who sees this as a problem irrespective of culpability, where a "libertarian" is someone who doesn't see it as a problem at all.

I was a libertarian in high school, for the same reasons I was more or less a jerk in high school. I've softened since.

You mention an "underclass" as a talking point for your "progression" from the libertarian. You subsequently argue that hackers wrongly disrespect the underclass. Wrongly, because the underclass is [unknowingly] stupid.

Being an uninformed idiot is not always a choice, but often times it is. I argue that some of them earn their lack of respect because they are selfish and ignorant. They earn selfish because an uninformed person is a cost to society, through pollution, welfare, medical, insurance, etc...

When you have a population of intentionally ignorant people, you need to lie to them to prevent them from doing dangerous things. For example, abstinence instead of protection. This is a problem because it is a bad way to solve problems, and an ugly trend.

My definition of a progressive is someone who wants to use government to bring about the perfection of society. Unfortunately, the track record of this philosophy is pretty awful. Most of the time, top down planning by people who think they know best for society results in utter disaster. Read "The Power Broker" about Robert Moses in New York, or "Urbanism and its End" about urban renewal in New Haven. "The Triumph of Conservatism" and the "Assault on Parenthood" are also very good books on the subject.

I care about helping others, but I don't think the vehicle for doing so is a mega-sized bureaucracy that sits on a former marshland a half-continent away from me. The proper place for help others is in your own community.

>Thus we assume that people are rational, will act rationally and by extension, live peacefully with their neighbors.

If libertarianism was contingent on people acting rationally and peacefully, then I wouldn't be a libertarian. Rather, I assume that people respond to incentives. When people have incentive to live peaceful and orderly lives, they tend to do it more than when those incentives are lacking.

I find it mystifying that the "progressive" type assumes that citizens will behave stupidly and violently but that they will somehow elect smart, saintly public servants to guide them.

I accept the Public Choice critique of government. I believe that government actors are just ordinary people like you and me and that they also respond to incentives. Disturbingly, they often have only very weak incentives to act for the public good, but strong incentives to SAY they are working for the public good, which I think explains much of what we see in politics. I don't think giving someone power will instantly make them a selfless angel.

Libertarianism is a realist philosophy, and it outperforms other philosophies in addressing the real world.

I assume that people respond to incentives.

You hit the nail on the head there.

People do what the incentives say they'll do. The incentives may be rational or not, but whatever they are, that's what you can bet people will do, and you'll be right almost 100% of the time. The biggest difference between dogs and people is that people learn faster; but the nature of the learning is roughly the same. Cookie = do that again; swat = don't do that again.

Capitalism protects individual freedom, which is morally right. Incidentally, it also turns the incentives towards efficient use of resources, which is in the public's best interest. I find it mystifying that progressives claim to impose regulation for the public good, when that almost always leads to a very wasteful misuse of resources that hurts the public in the end.

Its simple really, the internet is the most free medium in the world, and we've all seen first hand that its possible to accomplish many great things w/o government intervention.

By 'the internet', do you mean the descendant of the government funded Arpanet? ;)

Just because the government initially funded one piece of what eventually became the internet, doesn't mean that government sponsorship was necessary. Many other parts of the internet ( telnet, SMTP) were originally developed outside of the government, as were technologies before the age of the mega-state ( such as the telegraph).

does the government get credit for Walmart, for laying down highways? Same concept...the internet is more than just "a series of tubes".

One of the benefits of the government-subsidized interstate highway system is that products can be moved cheaply by truck from ports of entry and factories to wholesalers and from there to retailers, no matter where in the country those wholesalers and retailers are located. Another benefit is that it's economically feasible for a family to live in the suburbs, work in the city, and shop in a more distant suburb.

I wouldn't give the government "credit for Walmart", but the government has created an infrastructure that Walmart used to its benefit.

Except for the government subsidies that sponsored the development of the Internet back when it was called the ARPAnet, of course.

And where do those subsidies come from in the first place?

Yes, it's possible to accomplish many great things without government intervention. Except for creating the Internet in the first place.

Do you believe that no one would have seen the potential for networking computers without government funding?

Just because government funding was central to developing large section of the internet does not mean some similar system would not have developed anyway.

People saw the profit that could be gained by controlling their own networks of computers. Thus, before the Internet was open to the general public, there were online services like The Source, Compuserve, GEnie, AOL, which (as far as I can recall) did not interconnect.

The Internet is a network of networks, where I can rent a server on a data center owned by A which delivers bits through a pipe owned by B to a customer whose ISP is owned by C, and if I don't like A's terms of service then I can go buy equivalent bandwidth and access from A-prime. That wasn't possible with pre-Internet online providers.

AOL et all probably would have interconnected before long though. Look at the text messaging/SMS interconnect as an example.

Lots of people saw the potential. But considering the players involved at the time and their general lack of vision, it would have taken many more years to establish open interconnection standards if it was purely a private effort. The end result would have probably been similar, but the whole effort would have been much slower and less efficient.

From what I've seen, Libertarianism seems to be the most logically consistent and internally consistent ideology. I think it glosses over some aspects of human nature, but if you accept all the tenets, it can achieve an unmatched level of internal consistency. I suspect this is why hackers are attracted to it.

Wait a second --- I am very much a libertarian, but I also use Emacs! :) (This comment will not make sense to you if you haven't read the linked article.)

So do I :-).

Like I said in the essay, the bloat objection to emacs is irrational. Nonetheless, though, it's a natural reaction that most people have to get over.

The key to appreciating emacs is to realize that it's only incidentally a text editor. It's really a not-quite-general-purpose application platform for tasks that fall under the broad heading of "text processing". Similarly, Mozilla has evolved into a not-quite-general-purpose platform for interacting with internet services. With the advent of Web 2.0 the world seems to have suddenly embraced that interpretation of Mozilla. Before that, people used to gripe about Mozilla bloat in the same way that they still gripe about emacs bloat. (Think Zawinski's Law.)

Yes, I find that there's a disconnect the notion of liking places where good ideas win and a dislike of 'bloat.' What's one man's bloat is another man's potentially useful library / tool-chest. Emacs stays around because it's useful to many people. For software, that's an important kind of 'win.'

Hackers tend to be libertarians for the same reason that neither the essay nor the 18 comments so far mention demographics more than glancingly: they've stumbled into a high-status/high-reward niche in society, and like most people who do so, they prefer to think that this means they are exceptional. Libertarianism is an ideology for those who fear constraints on their own (self-perceived) excellence more than they fear luck. It attracts mainly those who have had very good luck, and it tells them a bedtime story about how that luck is really talent/accomplishment.

I'm a libertarian because I appreciate how order can develop in seemingly chaotic systems without central control. In human history, this organic order has been shown to provide the best incentives for progress. It causes life to improve for the most people at the fastest rate.

Also, I enjoy living in a free and prosperous society, I want my future children to live in a free and prosperous society, and I think the organic order of the market, which is a product of freedom itself, is the most likely organization of society to preserve freedom and prosperity.

All the alternatives to the market that have been tried throughout history are versions of Plato's philosopher-king. Whether leaders are elected or chosen by birth, the idea is that society needs a few wise people to have more power than everybody else in order to guide the rest. The arguments for a philosopher-king are simple and straight-forward, so many people advocate the idea. However, although arguments for the market are more subtle, I believe evidence and logic shows that the organic order it produces is better for society than order imposed by a philosopher-king. Bottom-up is better than top-down.

I'm not particularly successful, although I guess I am of above-average competence and have a fair chance at success. I resent the implication that I hold the ideas I do for solely self-serving reasons. I don't accuse the billionaire leftists I know of being self-serving.

Well, yeah, that is a particularly negative way of stating it, but mostly true. Most people favor political ideologies that favor them.

(e.g. those who identify with those who are unable to earn much tend to prefer more collectivist ideologies, and to call tallent luck, while those who identify with people who earn a lot tend to support more individualist ideologies, and call luck tallent.)

I think it is somewhat self-reinforcing, a person who believes that it is all a roll of the dice is less likely to put as much effort into self-improvement than someone who doesn't believe in luck.

But then, I don't believe in luck.

A religious friend has suggested that this is because I'm just lucky :)

That's a lot more descriptive of objectivism than of libertarianism, yet it seems like a rather small minority of hackers are objectivists.

I've hung out with Libertarian Party regulars in a few different cities. Take an evening sometime and try it yourself. You may reconsider the idea that libertarians are mostly part of a "high-status/high-reward niche".

"Libertarian" can mean something besides "idealistic capitalist."

No it cannot. All rights and freedoms come from property rights. Without property rights there are no other rights.

Uh... that's a bit far. Even Ayn Rand would probably quibble with that definition. Certainly freedom from physical suffering is orthogonal, no? Or you're saying that it's OK to, say, stab you repeatedly as long as you're on my property and I'm not stealing anything from you?

And sure, sure, I know you can get around this by defining your body and mind as your property. But then the whole thing becomes kind of a silly point, no? Everything can be a property right if everything is defined as someone's property. That's hardly profound.

Even Ayn Rand would probably quibble with that definition.

Really? He was actually paraphrasing Ayn Rand. Although, she would probably put it more like this:


The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.

“Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 94


There's a school of libertarianism that doesn't derive its conclusions from property rights.


I think you can extend this argument beyond hackers to scientists in general.

When you live in a "black and white" world, there's much less need to tolerate gray areas. Ask 100 politicians, writers, or clergypeople a question and get 100 answers. Much less so for us scientists. Sure we debate a little, but in the end 2 plus 2 still equals 4 (most of the time), and it's often easy to see if something works or doesn't.

Libertarianism is probably the most "black and white" of the political ideaologies, so the transfer is pretty natural for us.

> Libertarianism is probably the most "black and white" of the political ideaologies

I think Marxism and radical environmentalism (Earth First, Human Extinction Project) are equally so.

As a die-hard radical anarchist-on-wednesdays libertarian, I am hesitant to read these comments. I have a feeling that I'm about to wander into a flamewar.

I'm not a libertarian. I'm also a fan of python. Coincidence? ;)

Assumes facts not in evidence.

im not libertarian, im anarchist, you can tell by my music taste http://www.last.fm/user/Pavelludia

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