Saturday, January 17, 2009

Transparency of Governance

The arguments over regulation of the economic system and over exploitation of foreign crises for personal gain by bloody-flag-waving politicians and war profiteering corporations are subsets of a single pattern: transparency of governance.

I am certainly not arguing that “the people” are somehow more moral or more wise or more trustworthy than the elite. Perhaps they are, but that’s not my argument. Rather, the point is that, to borrow high-tech terminology, open-source software is more reliable than stuff designed in secret by a single corporation. And governance is “software:” it is not about stuff, it’s about concepts and attitudes.

We are all vulnerable to corruption, not to mention dumb mistakes: the distinction between the behavior of Wall Street executives with their billions in credit-fault swaps and a janitor taking a mortgage on a $400,000 house is paper-thin. The distinction between a terrorist attack and a war of choice is paper-thin. The protection from such irresponsible behavior lies not in arguments between “imperial presidency vs Congressional oversight” or “democracy vs. dictatorship” or “regulation vs. letting the market rule.” Yes, those are critically valuable debates, but they are fatally flawed by two simplifications:

  1. their very bivariate nature;
  2. their being separated.

Concerning the first oversimplification, resolution does not rely on posing two choices (e.g., regulate or not, have an imperial president or let Congress decide, let the people decide or let the elite decide). Concerning the second oversimplification, the debate over the quality of governance of the economy should not be isolated from the debate over the quality of governance of foreign policy.

Simply put, the problem with governance in America today lies at a higher level of abstraction: we are awash in stunningly dysfunctional levels of irresponsibility. Examples are obvious, e.g., bank managers encouraging mortgage loans to customers obviously incapable of paying; the hiring of Ethiopian proxy forces to intensify the civil war in Somalia; the repeated Predator attacks that kill civilians; the failure to punish politicians who start wars on false pretenses.

The degree of irresponsibility is far too great to be resolved by flipping a switch. It does not matter how much money Washington pours into Wall Street; it does not matter how many bombs are dropped. It almost does not matter whether decisions are made by an imperial president, Congress, or referendum: well, that statement is somewhat hyperbolic, but only “somewhat.” All personal or group decisions are vulnerable to major error: you cannot just “make a decision and go with it.” Yes, that is the American way, but it won’t work. The social system in which we live is complex; our governance of it falls short not only because of our personal immorality but because complex systems are hard to control. There is no “answer” in the sense of making the right choice or flipping the right switch. That is simplistic, reductionist thinking. It is theoretically impossible to “reduce” a complex system to a set of simple failures (a loose screw here, a missing nail there) that can incrementally be repaired.

The answer must have a level of complexity that matches the problem. I cannot provide that answer. No person can provide that answer. No human institution can provide that answer. Perhaps, in truth, all of mankind together will never figure it out, but until the Martians land and offer us the benefit of their superior intellect, everyone working together (that is essentially what “open source” means) is our best hope. Democracy is the process of inventing this solution. That absolutely does not mean that we should all vote on everything. It means that transparency of governance should be maximized. The more we all know and the more we can all participate, the greater the likelihood that all the resulting tinkering will end up discovering a better way of doing things. It would also help if we all agreed never again to use the phrase “stay the course.” “The course” is nothing but yesterday’s step in the dark. When you stub your toe, change course.

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