Saturday, September 18, 2010

Comenius, Openness and Fiscal Transparency

Faith and Fiscal Transparency

We have been examining the roots in spirituality of two principles of good governance on the local level, subsidiarity and fiscal transparency. However, as our technology becomes more sophisticated the twin principles are showing up there as well. As the Wikipedia article on subsidiarity points out, computer programming increasingly makes use of a kind of subsidiarity.

"The concept is applicable in the fields of government, political science, cybernetics, management, military (Mission Command) and, metaphorically, in the distribution of software module responsibilities in object-oriented programming (according to the Information expert design guideline)." (<>)

Object-oriented programming languages use certain conventions and standards that keep high level instructions from getting lost in the jungle of details in the machine-level architectures that carry them out.

The Importance of Being Transparent

The other twin principle is fiscal transparency, that is, having "glass pockets," which assures that everybody, starting with local taxpayers, knows exactly how their money is being spent. Studies have shown that humans are naturally more averse to loss than they hope for future gain. Therefore, if everybody knows exactly how local representatives are spending their money, there will be fewer junkets, boondoggles and other gross waste of funds that tend to arise in centralized structures.

This principle has always been an essential part of science, and with the rise of the internet it is spreading into technology. When the Internet had hardly begun the open systems movement, led by the Open Frontiers Foundation, devised rules for reconciling legitimate property rights with open, communitarian sharing. Large numbers of volunteer experts now write "open systems" software, the best known of which is the Linux operating system. The idea of publishing non-proprietary formulas for products has spread from there to unexpected products like chocolate bars, beers, soft drinks and gourmet coffee.

These idealistic volunteers believe that holding knowledge and discoveries back from the world stifles the freedom that is essential to prosperity, free markets and creative discovery in science. They are suspicious of the trade secrets, the non-disclosure agreements and centrist leanings of state capitalism and oversize corporations. 

Openness, by contrast, is part of the same sense of community and shared interest that led in pioneer days to barn raisings and quilting bees. The difference now is that helpers need not gather at the same place and time in order to work together to build something. The Internet permits volunteers work efficiently together at any time of day, from anywhere on the planet.

Comenius and "Forbid them not"

John Amos Comenius, who lived a century before Adam Smith, traced the lesson of freedom and openness back to an incident in the life of Jesus. His disciples came to him and protested that others were using his name to perform miracles. "Forbid them not," was his reply. (Mark 9:38) When there are competitors there is no need to oppose, since "ye shall know them by their fruits." Those who are not against us are for us. Such tolerance, openness and tentative reservation of judgment has since become a core value of both science and, in economics, the free enterprise system. Comenius thought that the "forbid them not" principle means that we should break up all monopolies, oligopolies and closed systems, be they in religion, the labour market or wherever else.

"The early Christians condemned Monotheletes for heresy; today no-one should play the part of a Monopolist. Everything should be common property except insofar as is necessary to preserve order and avoid confusion between parties. The same rule should be observed in the church and in schools. In Mark IX, 38, the disciples say 'We saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us, and we forbade him.' This should be a living example for modern disciples ... who do not allow the teaching and practice of their doctrines except by their own members and their own colleagues, regarding them as workmen of the same tribe. But although this seems a wise order of things (in politics, religion, and also education), yet it has turned into tyranny, and therefore the tribes in Belgium wisely rejected it. It should also be abolished in the church and all over the world. Every kind of work within reason should be open to all, and the state should profit, no matter who undertakes it. The works should testify whether anything is reasonably and profitably undertaken." (Ch. 24, pp. 105-106)

Nor is this emphasis on openness exclusive to Christianity among the world's religions. The Qur'an, for instance, teaches that enlightenment stands above left and right, East or West, right brain or left brain. God's light shines out on its own; it benefits all, without ownership by human beings.

"Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; a likeness of His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive-tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not --  light upon light --  Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah is Cognizant of all things." (Q24:35, Shakir)

Transparent Faith

It is important to keep in mind the religious foundations of these twin principles, for no doubt they demand a great deal more faith on everybody's part, especially those in central, "senior" institutions. Subsidiarity means that income sources -- taxes for government and profits for companies -- are indirect; funds pass through several middlemen before coming into their hands. Transparency prevents the confidential schemes and private arrangements that are commonplace in the present system. Since everybody knows how funds are spent, now and in the future, decision making, especially at first, will tend to be slow, complex, closely negotiated process.

Subsidiarity gives local governments latitude to spend tax revenue as they please before passing it on to higher governments. Won't this reward irresponsibility? If junior governments collect income taxes and only when local needs are covered pass on the remainder, what is to prevent them from withholding payment completely? What is to stop localities from spending tax money on junkets, leaving nothing for higher levels of government?

The same hard questions apply for owners and managers of corporations. In a cosmopolitan economy, would not cooperatives be less efficient? Would a democratic workplace, where workers are allowed to elect their own bosses, reduce their ability to make difficult choices? Would profit sharing schemes blur the line between owners, managers and employees?

These are all legitimate worries. As we shall see, the answer is the recapitulating decade plan, and its three-way partnership among science, religion and politics, put forward by John Amos Comenius. Only this is likely to prepare future citizens to bear the challenges and responsibilities that principles like these demand.


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