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Is a free market economy a prerequisite for open source?
Open source is effectively an interesting post-capitalist mode of production. But can it only flourish under free market systems?
Circumstantial evidence is not enough to support an argument, though, so let's look a little closer.
Free market economies are demand-driven. This means that companies produce goods when they perceive there to be a strong market demand. There's no other form of regulation when it comes to the production of goods (within reason - obviously things like thermonuclear warheads are regulated, but if you're creating consumer goods it's pretty much down to you). Therefore situations arise where a number of companies perceive market demand for a particular type of product. This is what happened in the computer industry when the PC was new.
The dynamics of the free market economy were such that, rather than having one state-run computer company produce one computer for each individual citizen (making an objective assessment of "need", and producing to fulfil that), a large number of companies were all able to start producing x86 hardware once a market demand for PCs had been identified. Competition between these companies drove down the prices of this hardware, meaning that PCs became cheap enough for consumer demand to come into play too. Effectively, these companies were engaged in an evolutionary process - whoever could come up with the best technology at the lowest price was going to come out on top.
Once the initial round of x86 technology had been sold, there was nothing stopping any of the companies coming up with even better x86 technology - faster CPUs, more memory etcetera. In the command economy, the "need" for this would be questionable. However, in a free market economy, there is nothing stopping a company from marketing its new generation of hardware and therefore exciting consumer demand for it. Also, it's up to the consumer how much it spends on computer hardware as opposed to home improvement or opium; another consequence of the free market. In a command economy, the normal person is unlikely to be able to make these sorts of choices - "what's wrong with your current technology? why do you need new stuff?" asks the prescriptive state.
So the free market was behind the stimulated demand, and therefore the low cost and subsequent ubiquity, of x86 and other computer hardware. Competition between manufacturers throughout the 1980s caused the price of computer hardware to drop and the capacity of same to increase.
Away from the factories and boardrooms, another fundamental prerequisite for open source software is the labourer, the normal human being. A free market economy leaves individuals pretty much free to decide what they're going to do with their time, unlike a prescriptive command economy. If you want to sit around doing nothing all day, fine - you'll need to use your imagination when it comes to making living, of course. Now, unlike state-run economies where someone with general skillz is going to be absorbed by state organisations, free market economies give programmers various career options, one of which is to be a freelancer, operating one's own company, and taking on work at one's own discretion. If one is sufficiently skilled, one might only need to work for six months in a year. This means that free market economies are going to contain more skilled people with time on their hands than a command economy, where the "from each according to its abilities, to each according to its needs" rule applies. These skilled people can then choose to run their own projects in their spare time - this is the whole point of "laissez-faire".
So the two essential prerequisities for open source - the people to make it, and the technology to make it with - are bound to be more abundant in a free market economy than in a command economy. Less essential prerequisites, such as people who are money-conscious and therefore keen to find decent free software, are more abundant too, but that's not my main point. With the humans and the technology abundant enough, the conditions were met and the open source movement thrived. In the Soviet Union, in China, in eastern Europe, in Cuba, the open source movement was not thriving.
Now I am *not* saying that the open source movement is motivated by the same factors that drive normal businesses. I'm not saying either that the open source movement is a monopoly (I was only saying yesterday that it has the potential to take on the sorts of experimental projects that shareholder-accountable corporations wouldn't touch with a bargepole, the sorts of things that national monopolies used to finance in the past). I'm not saying that capitalism is inherently *good* or that state economies are inherently *bad* - I'm surprisingly objective on the issue. And finally, I'm *not* saying that open source is inherently communist. I'm merely trying to illustrate how a free market economy is more likely to provide the conditions in which a movement like open source can thrive, and I hope I've gone some way towards doing this!