A Timeless Way of Governing

A Timeless Way of Governing

by P. Orin Zack
(May, 12, 2007)

In times long past, great buildings, universities and even cities were built through the concerted actions of many individuals, each focused on some small act of creation, without regard for any grand vision of the ‘completed’ work. What these people created fitted into one another organically, because each act of building was performed with regard to what was already present, the materials at hand, and the intended use of the space.

Seeing such completed works, those who came later set out to replicate these wonders by laying out detailed plans, and directing labor to implement them. It was daunting work, demanding as it did a single massive act of creation in the place of a multitude of smaller ones. But some rose to the task. After the American revolution, Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out a plan for the new nation’s capitol city. Near the end of the 19th century, Fredrick Law Olmstead designed parks to improve on nature. And in the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright was one of many who designed magnificent buildings.

The results were dramatic, each one reflecting the crystalline vision of a single designer. Soon, the world was filled with the monumental constructions of architectural wonder, each one pristine in its completeness, yet disconnected from the constructions surrounding it. In reflection of this, city governments adopted master plans for the development of their districts, directing builders to constrain their individual acts of creation to the limitations in their plans.

Today’s bland, repetitious landscape of strip malls, tract housing and off-the-shelf designs is the culmination of this planning process. Many of the social, economic and political problems we now face are the side-effects of how our current environment was constructed, and solving them has become a pressing need.

Back in the 1970s, Christopher Alexander turned his objections to the rigid results of modern architectural planning and building practices into a process for creating a more flexible and organic environment to live in. The methods he described in “A Timeless Way of Building” were rooted in the idea that a coherent whole would arise from individual acts of building if those involved had a common set of guiding principles. These patterns of thought and action comprise a pattern language which is used to communicate in form and function.

Software architects soon realized that the same approach would benefit their constructions of logic and data just as it did those of stone and steel. Each realm supported its own language of patterns, which its practitioners could use to develop coherent large-scale works without resorting to the constraints of a rigid master plan.

I believe there is yet another context in which Alexander’s pattern language would work: governance.

After shedding the yoke of England’s overseas monarchy, leaders from the former New World colonies set out to craft, through of a set of rules, a federal government to unite them. The Constitution they drafted drew its stability from the dynamic balance of competing forces. The inherent power of the several states was balanced against that of the newly created Federal government, and the duties and responsibilities within each of these were balanced among three co-equal branches: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. The framers were well aware that this balance was tenuous, so they added a set of dicta to prohibit the new government from certain behaviors which would usurp the assumed rights of the citizenry.

With the turmoil of the recent revolution still fresh in their memory, they were keenly aware of the need to adapt their creation to changing circumstances. Their response to this was the inclusion of a method by which the document they had drafted could be amended. However, such amendments could not alter the structural framework on which the government rested. Like L’Enfant, they believed that the underlying structure was sound and should not be tampered with.

But one thing remained unspoken throughout all of this planning, and that was the assumption that those governed by the new constitution, as well as those in positions of power within the government created by it, would all be guided by a concern for the common good.

There is an interesting parallel between the work of L’Enfant and that of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. While Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues laid the framework for a form of government, L’Enfant set this framework in stone. And although this connection is metaphoric, its effects are powerful, because the shape of our federal government has, in a sense, been set in stone as well.

Any kind of structure, whether implemented with ideas or I-beams, must withstand the forces capable of destroying it. Buildings must stand, not only against gravity, storms and age, but against those bent on changing it through vandalism or renovation. Software must stand, not only against accidental data corruption, but against user error and software updates. And the foundation of a government must stand, not only against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but against its friends and charges as well.

Those who came after the founders, like people inheriting an existing city, accepted the framework as a given, but still sought ways to bend it to their will. The changes they wanted have been implemented through constitutional amendments, state and federal laws, presidential signing statements, judicial decisions, executive orders, and common practice. While none of these can alter the structural framework embedded in the body of the constitution, they can, and have, acted to weaken or redefine the intent of that framework.

Just as a building of stone or steel will collapse if the supporting structure is weakened or broken, the edifice of our constitution will fall when the conceptual framework that supports it has been destroyed. As many people have already observed, we have very nearly reached that state already.

Removing an existing structure can actually be part of a larger act of creation, if there exists the intent to replace it with something more appropriate to the current needs of those who had used it. I would like to suggest the nature of a structure of governance which will succeed the US Constitution, so that We The People can be ready to implement it when the scoundrels working to undermine it have completed their work.

I first began exploring this possibility through a work of fiction. In my third novel, “Burnout Fever”, I created an activist organization called Constitutional Evolution. What we see of their activities includes a working group that uses role-playing to explore the psychological effects of different methods of introducing and refining legislation. I now think that the concept of such an organization has more value in exploring structural alternatives to the framework embedded in the constitution as it now exists.

Using the approach described by Christopher Alexander, in “A Timeless Way of Building”, we can use role playing to understand the strengths and weaknesses in different possible governmental structures. Once we know these details, we might craft a replacement for the portions of the existing constitution which have been damaged. But doing this would simply repeat the trap which we have already fallen into, assuming that the strongest solution we see today will withstand the forces arrayed against it tomorrow.

Instead, I suggest that we use Alexander’s process, and the insights we learn, to develop a constitution which includes the means to alter the framework itself, with safeguards against misuse.

The biggest flaw that I see in the current structure is a set of missing checks and balances for pitting the strengths of state and federal governments against one another. The second Bush administration has made use of this lack to impose its will on the states, over the strenuous objections of the governors. But because there is no formal method in the constitution by which a majority of the state governors can block actions of the federal Executive branch, the tenuous balance of power between the states and the federal government has been broken.

I would like to see this lack remedied, but doing so within the existing constitution is unlikely, and simply including it in a replacement would not be sufficient. A majority of the states should be able to block legislation or executive decrees which are harmful to their role in governing or to the people in their charge. More importantly, when a structural flaw of this magnitude is unearthed, it should be possible to alter the body of the constitution to remedy it.

Using Alexander’s methods in the cause of governance is a great departure from current practice. The first stage of creating a building, for example, is walking the space where it is to be constructed and determining its boundaries. In doing this, the people involved are forced to recognize the new building’s surroundings, and how its placement relates to what already exists nearby, both natural and man-made.

The equivalent of this act in the creation of a new government is recognition of how the jurisdiction to be governed relates to others, geographically, politically and economically. But because this particular government is comprised of states, the same process exists at more than one scale. Therefore, just as the framework being created must address how the nation relates to others, it also must address the relationships among the states within it, and the relationships between the states and the national government. Because the same document defines all of these relationships, there cannot be one set of behaviors for the states, and a different set for the nation as a whole.

Once the building’s footprint has been established, the next step is to identify the entrances and exits, including which of these is to be the most important one. For a government, this would be the primary channel of communications and interaction with other governments of the same stature. The division of our government into three branches corresponds to how the interior space is defined, with the chambers of government – Executive, Legislative and Judicial – being rooms or groups of rooms.

Because the framework we are describing also defines how the states are organized, one of these rooms would correspond to the collection of states. If you were to look at the structure being defined from the level of states, this inner room would represent the many counties and cities within the state. Consequently, the federal government we are defining really has four branches, because the states as a group should serve to reign in the actions of the three federal branches with which we are already familiar. Checks and balances involving the states are something new, and the details will need to be worked out.

In this way, the house of government can be created and refined. The process set in place by the document which defines how these things are done would also include processes for altering the interior of the building to accommodate future needs. One aspect of governance that I have not addressed is the role of the press, which today does not simply refer to newspapers and magazines. I suspect that its role is distributed throughout the structure, shedding light, so to speak, on all of the activities of government and circulating the breath of freedom which citizen and government alike need to breathe. But if the press is to have a formal role in this process, it will also have obligations to the people it serves through this role. If those obligations are not met, the news entity would lose access to government information. In other words, if Fox News wants to cover the activities of congress, it must do so fairly and completely, or else be barred from chambers. And this would require a formal check by the people over the press.

In every building, there are certain supporting structures which must be protected from mischief. The equivalent of these load bearing walls or girders in the framework of our existing government, such things as the freedom of speech, were to be protected in the Bill of Rights against acts of congress. However, laws are not the only way that changes have been wrought against the intent of the constitution’s framers. Judicial decisions, executive orders, signing statements and implementation policy have all been used to this end. I therefore suggest that the wording of prohibitions of this nature in our replacement document be tightened to include the acts of any governmental body or official, not merely those of congress.

This is just a brief taste of how such a premise would play out. I would like to see where this exploration leads. Therefore, I suggest that an organization similar to the one in my fiction be created to explore alternatives to the current way of governing. If you would like to help create such a group, please let me know.

Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack


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