On the benevolent dictator model

Recently, Josh Berkus blogged about The Myth of the Benevolent Dictator. In it he complained about people who try to posit that a benevolent dictator was “an unalloyed asset” to their project, and that there were many successful and valid forms project governance other than the singleton project leader. Furthermore, he argues that the best way is to form a community, and then ends by suggesting that people who say “dictatorship good” is really saying “democracy bad”, and perhaps the motives of the person using that argument should be questioned.

Given that I was one of the first people (and probably the first person) to use that phrase to describe Linus’s governance model, obviously I feet the need to respond to his thoughts on the matter.

First of all, the term “benevolent dictator” comes from an old saying, “the best form of government is the benevolent dictator — there’s only one problem, finding the benevolent dictator”1. And in my presentations where I explained the Linux project management model, I was always careful to say that there were other models that were used by other projects, and that it was interesting to study why certain management models worked for some projects but not others.

So by definition, if a project is successful with a single project leader ultimately responsible for making decisions to settle conflicts, then that leader is a “benevolent dictator”; if they aren’t successful, then that would be an example of a dictator who wasn’t able to be “benevolent”, eh? 🙂

In all seriousness, though, I agree with Josh when he says that the key part of an open source project being successful is gathering together a healthy community. But let’s unpack that a little. In order for a community to be healthy, there needs to be general consensus on the values and cultural norms for that community. So for example, in the case of Debian, which Josh holds up as a successful community, not everyone has the ability to vote; you have to pass a fairly stringent process which tests your technical skills and your willingness to subscribe to Debian’s core values as embedded to the Debian Social Contract. People who do not pass the New Membership process do not have the right to vote in Debian, even if they are the most rabid, fanatical users of Debian.

This brings up a key point about governance analogies; they all don’t map cleanly into the real world for two closely related and extremely important reasons: (1) No one has a fundamental human right to be a member in some OSS project, and (2) No one is forced to stay in a particular OSS project. These are really two sides of the same coin, and what it means is that, as in Debian, “democracy” does not mean that everyone is entitled to political franchise, or the right to vote, and in a project which has a “benevolent dictator”, the powers of the dictator is fundamentally limited by the simple fact that if he is too unreasonable, people are always free to leave or fork the project. These differences are extremely important when trying to reason about “democracy” or “dictatorship” as being good or bad as applied to open source projects.

Democracy is rarely the best way for an open source project to make decisions. For technical issues, you want the right answer, and majority vote isn’t necessarily way to resolve a technical issue. As far as policy decisions, if the decision can not be made by consensus, then some percentage of the community will be unhappy with how the decision, and that can cause a huge amount of arguments and dissension. If the community has very clearly expressed values, then the number of times where such votes need to be made will be minimal.

For example, Debian has an explicit declaration of its values and mission in its Debian Social Contract; people who don’t agree to the Social Contract aren’t allowed to become Debian Developers and thus are not allowed to vote. But, one of the more controversial disputes that have threatened to tear apart Debian is the question of the non-free packages, and that’s fundamentally because of an ambiguity in the Social Contract. On the one hand, Debian has declared that it is fundamentally 100% about Free Software, to the extent that it has adopted Richard Stallman’s rather petulant request that the Linux operating system be called GNU/Linux (which admittedly is better than Lignux.) On the other hand, the Social Contract also explicitly specifies the existent of the non-free section in the distribution. Over time, this ambiguity have been the source of a lot of highly passionate debate and controversial votes that have satisfied neither the FSF fanatics nor the more Linux-like moderate position tolerating the use of proprietary as well as open source software. I submit that if Debian had either explicitly stated an FSF-centric position, and only accepted members that supported point of view, or explicitly subscribed to a position that users should be able to use whatever software they feel meets their needs, as Ubuntu has, it would avoided many arguments that have threatened to tear apart Debian.

More recently the fact that the Social Contract has been silent about whether or not Debian Developers should be paid or purely be 100% volunteer. This was never an issue in the Linux Kernel community, but for some reason it has been a highly divisive and disruptive issue inside Debian. Democratic votes have not really resolved the conflicts, and in fact some might claim that these votes have if anything hardened various Debian Developers’ positions.

Going back to Josh’s final point, “Next time you hear the words ‘benevolent dictator’ you probably want to think about the motives of the person saying it. Because the corollary to ‘dictator good’ is ‘democracy bad’, and is that a place you really want to go?”, I am quite proud to stand by my convictions that for Open Source Projects, pure democracy is a bad idea. If a projects wants to be technically successful, it needs to be a meritocracy, and chose the best technical decisions; Linus does not decide by abiding with majority vote whether or not a patch should be accepted, and that’s as it should be.

Even Debian’s “raw democracy” doesn’t let any random luser get to vote on who should be the Debian Project Leader. Decisions need to be made by people who are competent to make a valid choice. Even in real life, one could argue that the choice made by Americans, over of which 70% believed that Saddam Hussein was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to be personally involved with the 9/11 attacks even though there has been absolutely no evidence to support this “gut feeling”, made a rather disastrous choice in voting to re-elect George Bush to the presidency. Democracy without sufficient education, literacy, and intellectual curiosity to learn about what is happening in the world can result in truly disastrous choices being made. So certainly, democracy is not a panacea. In the real world, it may be the best choice of many bad choices, given how much people have suffered under military dictatorships. However, in the Open Source world, things are different because people are always free to leave one project and affiliate with another — not an alternative most people living in dictatorships have historically had. Given these key differences, I think it is clear that for open source projects, democracy is indeed often a bad idea, and that if you if a project has a single person with a strong technical vision and good interpersonal skills, the benevolent dictator model can indeed be a very viable and successful.

Does that mean that other forms of governance can’t work? Of course not! The rotating dictatorship used by Perl2, the core-team-with-strongarm leader used by OpenBSD, the corporate dominated scheme of MySQL, the self-selecting core team model of Samba, all are successful models. I just have to strongly disagree with Josh’s claim the single strong leader approach is somehow inferior to “democracy” as if democracy was somehow a magic bullet.

1 For am early example of this quote, nine years ago, please see this message, where I’m pretty sure I authored the colon prefixed quote, and I know I was using the term “benevolent dictator” much earlier than 1998.

2 In the early days of Perl, it also used the benevolent dictator model. Larry Wall is a great exemplar of how someone who has a strong vision of what he wanted to accomplish, and was humble and easy to work with, both on-line and in person, can make all the difference in the world for an up-and-coming open source project.