The amusing case of tech libertarians

One of the remarkable things about tech libertarians and the culture that surrounds them is that the modern tech economy is only possible because of more socialistic endeavors. By this I don’t mean the by now hackneyed point that the internet was the fruit of public research while the world wide web was gifted to the world by a charitable Brit. What I have in mind is the software produced by the broad free software community led by GNU and Linux.

Linux is an operating system kernel originally created by Finn Linus Torvalds and released under a free open source software license that forbade people from, among other things, distributing altered versions of the software without sharing back their own source code. This mutual-sharing license was also applied to basic system utilities created by GNU and others that were generally coupled with the Linux kernel to create the core of what we would now call a Linux operating system. A massive community of smart people across the world contributed, nearly always in free open source form, to the development of Linux (and Linux-adjacent projects) over time, and still continue to do so today. This labor was largely the labor of hobbyists and people interested in the computer community. Few if any received any pay for their work. I, myself, as a teenager, contributed some small bits of software to a number of Linux distributions that I am proud to say is still in use today.

The Linux phenomenon is noteworthy because almost all of the websites and apps that you use are hosted by Linux servers. Android, the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, is itself a Linux operating system. The dirt cheap ability to put together websites and apps is courtesy of other free open source software like PHP, MySQL (and similar), and various HTTP servers. Were all of these tools developed along the same proprietary lines as the software that comes out of Microsoft or Apple, the web (and the ability to innovate on it) would look very different. You couldn’t just start a Facebook in a dorm room; you’d need to shell out big money to pay for all the bits of software that go into a web server stack. The nearly frictionless ability to, if you know what you are doing, push out new internet-based tech products is solely the provenance of a community of sharing-driven programmers ideologically opposed, in varying degrees, to the capitalist ethic.

In some ways, the tech libertarian thing suffers from the exact same problem all myopic egotism suffers from: an inadequate appreciation for the giants we all stand on and how insignificant our personal contribution is relative to them. A 22-year-old techie that comes on to the scene today is standing on the tip of thousands of years of accumulated math knowledge, materials sciences, electricity breakthroughs, chip manufacturing breakthroughs, hardware innovations like integrated circuits, an entire library of software to both learn from and use, and of course hundreds of thousands of dollars of educational investments they had nothing to do with. Yet, the little bit they mix on top of all of that is enough to convince some they are truly Great Men of the John Galt variety.

As common as this story is more generally, the fact that a successful young tech libertarian largely relies upon what is essentially communistically developed free software makes it especially precious. These folks step on to the scene with tens of millions of lines of donated community code at their back, marshall it towards some slightly new end, and then declare that they owe nothing to anybody and are self-made geniuses that the rest of society, through their taxation or regulation, is unduly oppressing.