Openness and Participation
I just finished reading "Active Liberty: Interpreting our Democratic Constitution" by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Altogether, this is a short but very interesting book and shows how a great legalist should think about important issues.
The central point of the book is that the U.S. Constitution is designed to promote the active participation of its citizens in government. As a result, the role of the U.S. Supreme Court is to interpret that Constitution with the goal of promoting greater participation. In some cases, this means protecting citizens from excessive government regulation (what he calls "modern liberty"), while in other cases, it means creating the necessary conditions for citizen involvement ("ancient liberty.")
Sometimes, the two goals require opposite courses of action, and the role of the Court is to weigh them and decide which would ultimately promote democracy. For example, campaign finance laws fundamentally restrict free speech. So are they constitutional? The answer is that it depends. The Court must very carefully consider whether a particular law, in the end, promotes greater participation by ensuring that every citizen has an adequate voice in the political process or whether they inhibit participation by preventing political dialogue altogether.
Justice Breyer also brought out an interesting historical example: in the early days after the American Revolution, there was strong sentiment against authority in the former colonies. As a result, many States enacted systems of government with very weak executive branches. Pennsylvania, for example, had a system of ten simultaneous executives (the equivalent of "presidents") who were elected only for one year each. The result, however, was not democracy but chaos. Uninformed politicians enacted laws based solely on the popular whim of the day, and there was no consistency and stability in government. The U.S. Constitution today was a response to this popular chaos and an attempt to create a system that encourages open participation by, in some cases, limiting the powers of each participant.
What does this have to do with open source? A lot.
When we create an open source community, we are essentially creating a miniature society of our own. Our goal is always to encourage participation, and key to that participation is openness. We allow others wide latitude in the use of our software and encourage their input and suggestions. But just as in a real society, there needs to be structure. We must consider the contributions of the community and set a common standard for what we accept for the whole. Otherwise, our projects, like our societies, could degenerate into chaos or fall prey to aggressive special interest groups.