Openness, Socialism, and Capitalism

I frequently hear people attempt to equate the open education movement with socialism. After all, the logic goes, what could possibly be more socialist than freely sharing things with everyone? The attempt to characterize the entire movement in a single assertion assumes a uniformity within the movement that anyone working in OER knows does not exist. I will neither agree or disagree with broad, general assertion in this post. Instead, I want to disagree with the statement in a very specific context, and carve out a specific and concrete space in the discourse about the motivations that underlie OER.

Several years ago, my wife and I were driving through a small town in southeastern Ohio when we passed a pizza shop displaying a large sign reading “Buy One, Get One.” Though the BOGO meme was of course familiar as a marketing ploy, something about the sign itself or the mood in the car caused me to read it more literally, and I told Elaine, “If I buy one, I had by golly better get one!”

As I’ve reflected on that sign, I’ve come to realize that this more literal reading of “Buy One, Get One” (as opposed to the reading which includes the word “free” by implication – “Buy One, Get One Free”) is one of the core elements of capitalism. When we buy one, we expect to get one. The symmetry of the transaction is part of the fundamental social contract that allows markets to function. I say social contract because I don’t enter into a written contract when I buy a pizza, a computer, or a book. The overwhelming majority of the purchases we make throughout our lives are all governed by our common understanding of this commonsense behavior society expects of us.

Now change reference points. Rather than thinking of yourself as a consumer, think of yourself as a taxpayer. Think of all your money that the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and other tax-funded agencies provide through grants to individuals, universities, and other organizations. When you pay (through the Department of Education) for a brand-name university in New England to produce simulation-based educational games that can help almost anyone learn basic physics, do you ever get to play that game? No. When you pay (through the NSF) for a brand-name university on the West Coast to conduct research that results in a groundbreaking article that significantly reinterprets the way the world works, do you ever get to read the article? No.

This is not ok. You bought and paid for a computer game, but you never got to play it. You bought and paid for a research article, but you never got to read it. This violates the fundamental idea of a market – that if you buy one, you should get one. And yet, because “that’s the way it works,” hardly anyone complains. It should be patently obvious to anyone who believes in the basic principles of capitalism that when you and other members of your community pay for educational materials or research products, you should receive them once they’re finished. The same way you expect to be served a pizza you paid for once it’s done cooking.

How can 300 million people eat the same pizza, you ask? Fortunately, many of the materials produced by state and federal grants (like computer games and research articles) are digital and can be posted on a website for anyone and everyone to download, read or play, and share with their friends. However, under standard US copyright law, downloading and sharing are not allowed. This is why the products of state and federal grants should either be placed in the public domain or licensed with an open license. These licensing arrangements are the only means of giving all of us who paid for the work the opportunity to “eat the pizza” legally. Consequently, in the case of educational and research products whose creation is taxpayer-funded, the basic principles of capitalism demand that these products either be placed in the public domain or licensed with an open license.

So, in this specific portion of the OER space, openness is not socialism. In this specific case, openness is the only way to fix a fundamental disfunction in the market. In this case, openness is completely compatible with capitalism. In this case, openness is literal taxpayer BOGO.

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