The World

[as I find it]

Entrenchment and Types of Stability

Entrenchment is the greatest enemy of democracy. By entrenchment, I mean the continuation of any aspect of government — be it funds for a program, ideological stances, or a politician’s term of office — merely because it has been established in the past. Entrenchment introduces inefficiency, lays the grounds for corruption, and limits the government’s ability to serve the needs of the people it represents as the world around them changes.

Different kinds of entrenchment introduce different kinds of problems:

  1. Entrenchment of funds in particular government programs can lead to an unconditional expectation of continued funding for that program. This in turn will cause the people who execute the program to balk at changes that will make it more effective, because it may mean that some of them change or lose their jobs. Entrenchment of funding may also lead to corruption: when people see that funds are flowing to ineffective parts of a program, they may take it as a permission to help themselves, since it isn’t going to be put to good use anyway.
  2. Entrenchment of politicians in office leads very obviously to corruption, because an expectation of continued power induces an expectation of increasing power. In Congress, for example, senior members are given (or take) the most powerful seats on committees. With increased power comes the ability to secure resources more easily for corrupt purposes and the ability to suppress investigation and auditing. Also, since seniority is only given to a small class of politicians, competition for power is not so fierce, and collusion becomes less difficult.
  3. Entrenchment of ideas, ideologies, and legal practice suppresses creativity in finding new solutions to problems. Habit and repeated practice cause the mind to forget that there are other ways of doing things: if I have always driven to work, for example, and then I move to a new house which is closer to where I work, I may still drive, simply because it doesn’t occur to me that I could now ride a bicycle. (I might also believe, falsely, that I couldn’t ride a bicycle, or that it might be bad for me to do so.) Similarly, if our solution to unemployment has in the past been to give out welfare, we may be blinded by habit to other kinds of remedies. This kind of entrenchment is a kind of failed inductive inference: based on past experience, I assume that ideas I held true will continue to hold true, even in new situations. Inductive inference is essential to all aspects of human life, and in many cases it doesn’t go wrong, but when the conclusion is not true it can have harmful consequences, as any false belief may have.

Of course, we have to recognize that governments and people generally need stability to function from day to day. People might argue that some of what I have been calling “entrenchment” is actually a good thing because it provides this stability. If the executors of a government program had no assurance that their funding would continue, they would take everything they could get from it before it was closed down. If politicians couldn’t rely on an incumbent’s advantage in an election, they would spend all their time campaigning and none of it actually working on legislation. If ideas that were partially successful in the past could be thrown away without a second thought, we would constantly be wondering what to do.

Where I have said “entrenchment,” I mean only the negative effects of stable aspects of government. In order to combat the argument above, I think we need to distinguish between two kinds of stability, which I will call “open stability” and “closed stability.” Open stability refers to a kind of stability that allows people and governments to continue to accomplish what they need to do without entrenchment. It is “open” because it is open to change or revision: it provides stability even through major structural changes, thereby making change — and improvement — easier. Closed stability is the kind that leads very easily to entrenchment: it is stability that will not weather change very well. Closed stability is a barrier to improvement because improvements — especially large, structural changes — will destabilize people’s lives and practices, and they will therefore resist those improvements. When the people operating a system with closed stability have the power to perpetuate that system instead of changing it, entrenchment soon follows.

Examples of closed stability are easy to find: they exist in any system where people (quite reasonably) believe that change will be bad for them. Current use of and thinking about copyright law has closed stability because it has not been able to respond well to the changes of copying and sharing ability made possible by cheap computers and the Internet. The American culture of living in suburbs and driving to work has closed stability because it would be expensive and difficult to set up public transportation systems to serve the suburbs as easily as the system of driving does now. The system of how power is distributed in Congress has closed stability because elections are staggered to prevent more than a few newcomers in Congress after the public votes, and because more powerful seats are given to senior members.

Examples of open stability, on the other hand, are more difficult to think of. To a certain extent, academia provides an example, especially in the sciences and mathematics. In those areas, previously published and accepted ideas are rejected when they are shown to be wrong (T. S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions notwithstanding). Even if overturning old ideas takes a long time, it is at least made explicit and deliberate in a way that changes in “public discourse” and “ideas held by the public” are not. A better example is provided by Free Software: when programmers have the ability to share, modify, and redistribute code, software bugs are fixed and software is adapted to new problems very rapidly. No user of the software is held captive by older or dysfunctional versions, because every user has the freedom to change those versions and redistribute them to others. Open stability is present in the free software world in smaller ways, too: it is possible to upgrade most pieces of software on a Debian GNU/Linux system, for example, without rebooting it.

The division between the two types of stability is not a sharp one; often, both types of stability are present in the same system. The bigger the change, the more resistant a system will be to it, and in this sense it will be closed; but every system has small improvements that could be made with little disruption. Therefore, to prevent entrenchment, we should strive to maximize open stability at all levels of a system, so that large and small improvements can be made with the least disruption and resistance. Applied to government, this will serve the ends of democracy.

Creating an openly stable system where there is none is difficult enough, and replacing a closed or entrenched system with an open one is even more difficult. People functioning within a closed-stability system have an interest in preventing change, especially if that system has become so entrenched as to allow them to become corrupt. However, I think the above examples demonstrate that openly stable systems are possible, even at the level of governing bodies. (Free software proponents are distributed all over the world, for example, yet somehow manage to make collective decisions about their community and produce software from which everyone can benefit.) Therefore, I shall close by listing some characteristics of openly stable systems that we should strive to create in any truly democratic government. These systems work because they anticipate their own revision, just as a good democracy does; here are my observations on how they do it:

  1. Simplicity. The rules governing openly stable systems are generally simple, so that they can easily be understood by a wide variety of people. The American legal system fails to be openly stable in this sense. We require people to pay large sums of money to be trained in the intricacies of the law, and we later pay them (as lawyers, judges, and legislators) large sums of money to navigate and interact with the law. One major barrier to the repeal of unjust and undemocratic laws in America, and anywhere else, is the existence of a privileged class of lawyers: if non-lawyers can’t understand normal laws due to the complexity of those laws, they are unlikely to understand their consequences and to demand that the laws be changed.
  2. Gradualism leading to improvement. It must be possible in an openly stable system to make small changes over time that, taken in sum, amount to large changes and genuine progress. In a sense, American democratic government is already very gradual. Unfortunately, other factors prevent that gradualism from yielding progress much of the time. Though the laws change in small, subtle ways, these changes often do not add up to improvements over time. Tax code, for example, seems to get more complex every year. Though it is constantly revised, I doubt that more than a few people would ever say the tax laws improve. Copyright law is another example: throughout American history, copyright law has been modified and extended at various times to meet new needs — but rather than using those changes to effect the “Progess of Science and the Useful Arts” for public benefit, those changes have amounted to increased regulation that prevents creativity and innovation and protects large media companies instead of authors and the public interest. As a positive example of gradualism, I would again point to free software: small changes in program code are distributed very frequently to users, as patches for bugs or improvements in functionality. Over time, many small changes add up to dramatic improvements in quality. They also tend to create many specialized “branches” of a piece of software adapted for specific purposes or environments, in much the same way species gradually evolve by adapting to new selective pressures. Gradualism thus goes hand-in-hand with individual adaptations, the next feature of openly stable systems:
  3. Ability of individuals to use and contribute to the system in different ways. Any system based on a one-size-fits-all model will fail, because it’s never the case that everyone’s needs for that system are the same to begin with and will remain so indefinitely. This is the idea behind the simplest principle of democracy: every person chooses for herself how to vote. A system where everyone had only one choice in voting would not have open stability at all; a system where everyone effectively has only two choices in voting is not much better. Moreover, voting is a very crude and removed way of using and contributing to a system of government, since changes effected by individual votes are few and far between. In New England, at least, many towns still have Town Meeting Day once a year, and school board meetings are open to the public. Whether or not these meetings are well-attended, they are another way citizens can participate in their own governance. (Imagine if Town Meetings were held in every town once a month, or once a week!) The public school system is an example of a system that tries, but often fails, to allow individuals to use and contribute to it in different ways. Due to a lack of resources and pressure to meet standards (such as those imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act), public schools are unable to pay the individual attention to students that they should. It’s true that parents are allowed and encouraged to contribute to schools in different ways; unfortunately, however, this means that the children of those parents who can afford the time to contribute more time can receive preferential treatment. A more openly-stable school system would both encourage greater participation by parents and students and prevent the penalizing of students whose parents are unable or unwilling to contribute as often. The same idea can and should be applied to other aspects of government: every citizen should be able to participate in whatever way seems appropriate to him, and he should be on equal footing in that participation with whatever “powers that be.”
  4. Lack of strict and static hierarchies. Like simplicity, this feature of openly-stable systems ensures that people without special training can easily participate and contribute to a system; it also prevents entrenchment and corruption. The more levels of bureaucracy there are between the people governed by the system and the people who make decisions in that system, the more difficult it is for normal people to effect changes to that system that improve it. Bureaucracy grows in government because people often unimaginatively assume that the only sort of oversight that is effective is “vertical” oversight. In openly stable systems, oversight tends to be “horizontal”: social review among peers determines whether and how changes are made. This speeds up the decision-making process and prevents it from being subject to the whims of a chosen or privileged few. Any number of communities on the Internet could serve as an example of this feature of openly stable systems. American government, by contrast, has an extremely vertical and static hierarchy, which is defined both by law and by norms. Members of all branches of government, once elected or appointed, have little fear of being removed. Decisions are passed down through innumerable levels of bureaucracy. The channels in which money flows are held fixed by powerful special interests. Static hierarchies have nowhere to go but to perpetuate themselves; every new activity will require a new level of bureaucratic oversight, and stopping any old activity means that its overseers will lose their jobs. In peer-reviewed systems, people can more easily shift their focus without gaining or losing power; they simply start reviewing something else.
  5. Free availability of all information to the public; possibility of public audit. This is one feature that American government tries to exhibit, but rarely attains because of practical concerns. The amount of documentation kept by the government that is in principle available to the public is huge; but the effort required to collect that information (by petition under the Freedom of Information Act, for example), understand it, and distill it to a form that the public can use is often a great barricade against truly free information exchange. The concentration of media control in the hands of five major companies, all with more or less the same commercial interests, further prevents the dissemination of information the public might want to know. Moreover, because some protections are in place for “secret” information, and the public doesn’t have access to secret information, these protections can be abused and extended to hide information that would be damaging to politicians. Possibly the most important area in which information should be freely available and publicized is that of government finances. I suspect that if more people knew just how much money their elected politicians were receiving from special interests, and how that money affected their votes, they would be outraged. Because few people have the incentive to collect and publish this information, however, and many powerful people have an incentive to keep this information obscure, public outrage is minimal. The possibility of frequent and publicly-understandable audit is the only way to prevent the abuse and misuse of funds levied by the government. It is important to remember, though, that freedom of information extends beyond just auditing and public oversight. The public should have access to all content from which it can benefit within the shortest period possible to ensure that innovation continues. Copyrights and patents should expire within a short period or after their first sale; the continual and unlimited protection of “trade secrets,” like proprietary software code, should be abolished. In any openly stable system, there are no such secrets.
  6. Nonchalance toward “cheaters.” This feature of openly stable systems may be the easiest to describe and the hardest to achieve. By “cheaters” I mean anyone who does not contribute to the open system from which she benefits; by “nonchalance,” I mean that the system suffers no harm when used by cheaters. Free software has this feature: I myself am a “cheater” in the sense that I have not edited or redistributed code to benefit others, while I have received the benefits that free software offers. The reason for this is mostly a lack of time and technical knowledge on my part. But the free software movement continues without my help or the help of many other users, and it suffers no deficiency, so long as other people contribute. The system of voting has this feature, in a more negative sense: everyone is free not to participate, and many do not; unfortunately, though, the consequences of more than half the country’s non-participation in voting and politics generally has more serious consequences. Nonchalance toward cheaters is something like the property of being economically or biologically robust: it means the system is not so sensitive to cheaters that a few of them, or even a large number, will cause it to crumble. No real system can be perfectly robust, however, because some contributors will always be needed to make the system work. Building this feature into a system is a matter of striking a balance between contributors and non-contributors that isn’t easy to strike, but we have many models for predicting the robustness of a system ahead of time, and we should use them to our advantage. Many of our current practices are not nonchalant toward non-participants, because the benefits for participants (like special interest groups with enough money to lobby Congress or contribute to campaigns) are incredibly high, and practical considerations (like lack of enormous amounts of money and organizing time) turn many would-be participants into non-participants. If we want a government that more robustly supports the public interest and is not susceptible to the destabilizing forces of private interests, we have to fix this feature of it.
  7. Prevention of closed stability. Finally, there is one sense in which openly stable systems are simultaneously “closed”: they explicitly prevent practices that would lead to closed stability and entrenchment from getting off the ground. The GNU General Public License, the most widely-used free software license, is a perfect example: in order to prevent open code from becoming closed and proprietary, the GPL requires that all copies and derivative works also be licensed under terms that meet the GPL’s requirements. GPL-licensed software is guaranteed to remain free. By contrast, many systems in government have no principled or practical protections in place to prevent the loss of open stability, if it was ever there in the first place. Laws and regulations that began with simple ideas may become increasingly complex and inaccessible as they are revised, so that they may end up harming the very people they were originally intended to benefit, and no one but a specially-trained few has the time or professional resources to change them. Where bureaucracies get started, they tend to build. Where some information can be kept secret, more will be kept secret in the future. Where one-size-fits-all programs are in place, they will grow increasingly conformist and serve the needs of individuals less well. Where small changes are prevented, soon no improvements may be made at all. This is the most essential lesson to learn in preventing entrenchment, in government or anywhere else: the system must be designed so that it is guaranteed to remain open and free to all.

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

February 7, 2007 at 1:56 pm

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