February 21, 2019

.comment: 1776? Yeah, Right.

Let Facts Be Submitted to a Candid World

  • March 2, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

So now we have Richard M. Stallman likening the GNU General Public License to the Declaration of Independence.

Well, the GPL is written in English, and it was composed in the United States, and it has a few words in common with the work of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, but to liken the two documents is a laughable exercise in megalomania.

In his little essay "The GNU GPL and the American Way," Stallman tells us, "The Free Software Movement was founded in 1984, but its inspiration comes from the ideals of 1776." This is true if the inspiration is derived from a desire to confound those ideals.

Let's take a look at 1776. There were two extraordinary things that happened that year. The one that instantly comes to mind, at least to the minds of Americans, is the passage and publication of the Declaration of Independence. The other, just as important in its own way, was publication of "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," by the Scottish economist Adam Smith -- the first great argument for free markets. We can pretty safely assume that Stallman was not speaking of Smith when he wrote about the "ideals of 1776." Smith presaged much in the industrial revolution that was just then getting its start; it would go on to alter society and raise the standard of living more, and in different ways, than had anything that had come before it. For any of this to work, private rather than community effort was needed, as was private rather than community risk. If someone sought to go into business, he would risk his own money in an effort to enrich himself. If he succeeded, the results were his. If he failed, the losses were his, too.

Indeed, as Robert Heilbroner detailed in his excellent, "The Worldly Philosophers," prior to 1776 much that we now accept as commonplace did not exist. The profit motive, as we have come to know it, was a new idea; it would have been folly for most ordinary people even to think of it. There certainly were people seeking to amass fortunes and to do good things with them, but these were relatively few, and remarkable.

But Stallman is not talking about these things. Instead, he seeks, pretty comically, to cloak the GPL in the Declaration of Independence.

That noble document was written largely in defense of private property and free trade. The GPL was not.

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