Tolls Roads & Free Software



<>< Josh Rule : : 2008 MCPP Intern

I have written in other posts about Richard Stallman,  and while his writings often make a few solid points, they are often equally filled with poor analogies that illustrate a haphazard application of economic principles.  For example, I recently read Stallman’s Why Software Should be Free at the GNU project, a free software effort aimed at creating a UNIX clone.  For clarification, UNIX is an operating system that has been imitated in some fashion by nearly every other operating system since its introduction, including Apple’s OS X and even Microsoft Windows.

In this particular article, Stallman attempts to compare toll roads with proprietary software.  At first, he notes some of the benefits of toll roads: road quality would improve, and users pay directly for maintenance, unlike a gas tax.  Then, Stallman begins to falter by calling tolls artificial, claiming that they do not reflect the consequences of how cars or roads work.  Yet, toll roads are a direct reflection of the relationship between roads and cars.  Cars wear down roads and cause them to need maintenance.  Cars exact a toll on roads.  So, the owners of roads exact a toll on cars, and that toll is used, in part, to cover the cost of repairing the damage caused by cars.  Charging directly for road use makes very explicit the relationship between roads and cars, so on that point, Stallman is wrong.  Roads are just another need that people with cars have, and tolls simply reflect the cost of fulfilling the need back to drivers.

There are a number of other points on which Stallman seems to poorly support his claims about toll roads and their harm to society, but I would like to point out only one more for now.  He proposes that in poorer countries, toll roads would make many roads unusable by the masses.  In that claim, though, Stallman forgets how the markets work.  If the toll is incredibly high, such that only a few people a day must drive on it to produce a profit for the road’s owners, and those few people are willing to pay, the road serves its purpose.  However, if the country is truly poor, no one will be able to pay the toll, in which case the owners must lower their price to make it affordable for more people, or they must go out of business entirely.  In either case, the road will quickly become accessible by a greater number of people.  Further, if the road is a toll road, it will not be funded by taxes year after year, easing the tax burden on the poor and allowing them to specifically fund, through tolls, the roads of their choice.  In the end, the poor will most likely be better off, not worse off, through the introduction of toll roads.

There are substantive arguments as to why public roads should exist which might be applicable to Stallman’s arguments about free software, but none are present in his article.  Unfortunately, that makes nearly the entire section just wasted text, obfuscating his arguments for why free software is important.  It is too bad, because Stallman’s claim, that free software is important for such things as the protection of ownership and the promotion of liberty, is a valid thesis.  It is just poorly supported here by faulty arguments and poor analogies.

Note:  A better comparison might be a road with a single owner (proprietary) versus a road in which everyone is free to modify the road to suit their own purposes (free software).  However, the analogy quickly breaks down, because owners of free software typically modify their own copy of the software and perhaps submit the modifications for integration with the official source code as deemed appropriate by the project leader.  Yet, no one owns an individual copy of the road.  They all modify the same road, comparable to everyone modifying the official source code without review by the project leader.


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