Why Open Source Works

Open source works for a lot of reasons, but there is one that stands out. Open source is basically an application of democracy to a programming community, in fact it’s the most perfect implementation of democracy yet.

The central idea of a democracy is that the governing party draws it’s authority from the willing consent of the governed. In most modern democracies this is more or less true, but not exactly. In the real world it’s often very difficult for a citizen to withdraw their consent to be governed by the governing: they have to wait until elections to formally enact change, violent rebellion basically doesn’t exist in first world countries, and there are many barriers (economic and otherwise) to just picking up and leaving. Because of the difficulty in withdrawing consent, modern democracies are not (and probably cannot) perfectly embody this spirit.

But open source communities can. In the open source world forking is often considered to be a nuclear option (ignoring the use of the term in the DVCS sense of forking for collaboration), a tactic designed to fragment a community. But it’s also the perfect equalizer. Authority in open source communities is derived from the community’s willingness to stay under the leadership of that authority, at any point any member of the community can decide to exit the community: to use a different piece of software, or to fork it, and continue development however they please. Because there are practical options to withdrawing consent to the governance open source is probably the most perfect application of democracy.