Expose the Metadata

Designing a democracy is like designing computer software. In both cases, you are building something that you expect will be modified over time. Since you will not always be around to support, fix, and extend the system yourself, you will (if you are enlightened, unselfish and take the long term view) leave future systems administrators and developers the information they will need to do their jobs effectively. In systems design-- either political or software systems--this means leaving the metadata exposed.

Metadata, of course, is the data about the data. In software design, the metadata are the schema of a database (the tables, their relationships, the types and characteristics of the data the tables contain) or the class diagram of an object oriented system (classes, relationships, inheritance, attributes and methods). In political design, the metadata are the Constitution under which the system operates, any amendments to it, any laws clarifying or implementing the system, judicial decisions explaining it, and (least important of all in a government "of laws, not of men") policy statements and orders of the executive.

Humans being the kind of small cattle they are, systems have a way of being taken over by the selfish and small-minded, the lazy and the expedient thinkers, so that sooner or later there is little resemblance between the map and the territory; the metadata becomes a sort of ivory-tower thinking, and what began as an "is" ends life as an "ought". The true test of whether the metadata are successfully exposed is whether someone who has reviewed the metadata now knows everything (or nearly everything) she needs to know to understand the system. In the last stage of system decay, the metadata become useless or actively misleading, so that someone who thoroughly understands them knows nothing about the actual workings of the system. One example: during and after the 1972 coup which overthrew president Allende and which resulted in the torture and murder of thousands of people, Chile continued to have a constitution which included the clause, "Torture shall not be applied." But the Chilean constitution, though never revoked, ceased to tell you anything useful about the workings of the system.

The system changes, but the metadata are not updated. In software systems, this is usually a result of speed and carelessness. In political systems, it is because the people who make the changes don't care to publish them. There are many torturers, but few (no matter how absolute their power over their own people) who would care to have a constitution saying that torture is a legitimate tool of government inquiry or of justice.

Constitutions usually contain (as ours does) a mechanism for their own amendment. Since we typically amend the Constitution to reflect a change we are proud of--for example, the end of slavery--our failure to update the metadata to reflect reality usual signals a change we wish to conceal. Selfish, dishonest and dangerous people want to run things in secret, without having to deal with public anger at the wounds they have inflicted on the system.

Where is the United States in this arc of system decay? We are not entirely lost, but are in major trouble. The recent CDA decision was a pleasant reminder that our judges are still capable of applying the metadata--but what do you make of the fact that so many of us were surprised when the court did the right thing? Or that our Congress, in passing laws like the CDA, and our President, in supporting and defending such laws, seem to have lost any sense of the metadata? Or that we cannot trust the Supreme Court to honor the metadata when the case is appealed?

Anyone reviewing the metadata of American democracy will receive a partial picture. Years ago, a critic of the Soviet Communist justice system observed that it worked adequately for most defendants: a petty thief would get a fair trial, but the author of a rebellious samizdat would not. Everyone knew, more or less, where the lines were drawn, though nothing in the metadata told you. The U.S. system increasingly suffers from a very similar flaw: disputes and problems are resolved reasonably well until the parties run up against certain interests; but nothing in the metadata tells you what these interests are, how they work, and how to recognize them.

A Martian, reading the Constitution and all the other important documents underpinning American democracy, would probably not recognize the profound importance of money in the system. This fact is entirely lacking from the published metadata. You may elect your Congressperson, but she represents someone else who actually paid her way. The spark which is supposed to pass from you to her--your beliefs, transmitted and enforced by your vote-- got lost in transit, and someone else more important than you provided the spark instead. Someone who doesn't want what you want. This is not a partisan statement; it is as true of Democrats as it is of Republicans, and even Congress' only independent, socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was elected with NRA support and dares not oppose the organization on gun issues.

After Richard Nixon hopped the track, Congress passed a pretty serious campaign finance law. The Supreme Court then gutted it in a little-known case called Buckley v. Valeo, which permitted the flamboyant growth of today's campaign finance system, where unregulated and unlimited contributions to state party organizations are spent to support candidates who could not legally have recieved the contributions directly. If we could change just one thing immediately as a moderate defense of the integrity of the metadata, it would be to eliminate soft money from our political system. A radical defense of the metadata would involve eliminating all campaign finance entirely.

Do you care about your grandchildren and their grandchildren? In the midst of all the substantive actions you take to help ensure that the world they live in is not worse than your own, think about a procedural one: do everything you can to make certain that the metadata, the true workings of the American system, remain exposed. And that there is nothing your descendants will need to know that is not in the metadata.

Copyright Leon Walls 1996