Friday, December 18, 2009

"Open Source" Government

Tory Gattis offers a suggestion to Mayor-elect Parker that Houston adopt an "open source" style of government, similar to that used with software today:
...truly open up government to enable more engagement by citizens (including innovation and finding much-needed efficiency improvements)...
I often find Tory's insights on infrastructure and transportation issues interesting, but this is a bad idea. A very bad idea.

I am not opposed to citizens offering suggestions to government; I have been doing so on this blog for the past nineteen months. But my suggestions are not aimed at finding innovations or improving efficiencies. My suggestions are aimed at restricting government to its proper function--protecting our rights.

Government is an agency of force. Its prescriptions and proscriptions are enforced with a gun, and if you don't believe me, try violating one of them. Sooner or later somebody with a gun will show up at your door. When government has expanded far beyond its legitimate powers, do we really want government to be more innovative in using force? When government is poking its nose into every aspect of our lives, do we really want government to wield its clubs more efficiently? I don't think so.

But my objection to Tory's suggestion goes beyond this. Consider this statement from Wikipedia, regarding open source software:
Some consider open source a philosophy, others consider it a pragmatic methodology.
I am certainly not an expert on the open source movement. But what I do know is that individuals give up intellectual property rights when they participate. Once shared with the world, they have no claim to their ideas or their material consequences. On the surface this strikes me as very altruistic, but since I do not know the motivations of those involved or what material benefits they might derive, I will withhold judgment on that issue.

If open source is a philosophy, and a pragmatic philosophy at that, what are the implications for applying this idea to government? Before we can answer that question, we must first understand Pragmatism.

As a philosophy, Pragmatism holds that truth is "what works". And how do we know "what works"? We try something, and if we get desirable results, then our idea must be true. If we get undesirable results, we try something else. But we cannot judge truth until after the fact. We cannot project results, because according to Pragmatism, there are no principles. As Ayn Rand wrote:
[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate,” that there is no such thing as a distinction between an external world and a consciousness (between the perceived and the perceiver), there is only an undifferentiated package-deal labeled “experience,” and whatever one wishes to be true, is true, whatever one wishes to exist, does exist, provided it works or makes one feel better.
If someone wrote software following this dictum, the consequences would be minimal. His program might crash or a web page would not display correctly. Nobody would use the software. But what if one applied this to government? What if a government official is faced with a pressing problem, and his solution is to "try something" and judge its validity by the consequences? We get TARP (or any number of government programs), which was government's attempt to "try something" to fix the problems caused by the Federal Reserve (and Congress), which had previously "tried something" to fix the problems caused by previous attempts to "try something".

For more than 100 years the government has "tried something" over and over again. And when problems result, which they must, the government "tries something" else. But unlike software, the "users" have no choice in the matter. Unlike Firefox users, who can freely switch to Internet Explorer, or vice versa, the citizenry must accept government's continual experimentation whether they like the results or not.

Adding an "open source" approach to government, that is, enabling more "engagement" by citizens, is simply an invitation for more lobbyists and special interest groups to twist the ears of public officials. It is an invitation for more compromise, for an ever increasing gaggle of noisy gangs to parade before government officials demanding that their ideas "be tried".

Absent the proper moral and political principles, these demands will necessarily involve using government coercion for the benefit of some at the expense of others. Without government limited to its proper function--the protection of individual rights--"open source" government will be nothing more than civil war. The "soldiers" might wear suits and ties instead of camouflage, they might brandish reams of reports instead of automatic weapons, but the results will be just as deadly. They won't be fighting for a piece of turf; they will be fighting for control of our lives.


Tory Gattis said...

My intention is to improve the efficient use of tax dollars and reduce corruption on the things govt must do. I agree on the expansion/coercian problem, which is why the domains of govt must be left to elected lawmakers constrained by a strong constitution.

Brian Phillips said...

Tory--I don't disagree that tax dollars should be used efficiently. My concern with an "open source" approach is that it turns into mob rule.