Designing a Sustainable Institution

What makes other communities sustainable? One common thread is that they all have institutions that support and govern them. They could be courts, legislatures, religious hierarchies, fraternal societies; the list goes on. What we don’t find are sustainable communities without institutions. Even anarcho-syndicates form terms of their free association.

Therefore, we need to design an institution that supports and governs the community, which is dedicated to creating the architecture of participation that ensures a thriving community. We need rules for our community’s association. To do that, we can leverage Political Theory.

Political theory is the study of the history, ethics, and legitimacy of institutions and governments. Philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Mill are examples of political philosophers. Together, they shaped many of the foundations of western society. In particular, two big ideas have dominated the discourse: the social contract and utilitarianism. A social contract is an agreement between people in a community to work together, at the expense of some of their freedoms. “I agree to not steal from others, in exchange for not being stolen from.” Utilitarianism can be summed up as the idea that what is good for the majority is what’s good for society. While the social contract came first, the utilitarian perspective dominated for decades. Let’s dive in to the utilitarian view, then turn to the social contract.

In 1907, Henry Sidgwick summarized the utilitarian view this way:

Society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions are arranged to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it

The main idea is this: when there is more total satisfaction (“the good”) in the society, things are just. This can (will?) happen at the expense of the minority, as long as we have more aggregate goodness in the system. The problem with a utilitarian view is that it is concerned with the total amount of goodness in a society: it doesn’t care about ensuring any kind of distribution of the good. It can be weighted strongly toward the majority, even a small segment of the majority. A strong majority controlling everything might create sustainable software (like our Excel example.) It is unlikely to create a sustainable community for long - it will continue to accumulate the good for itself, at the expense of others. Political theorists have spent a huge amount of effort trying to soften this blow, to no real avail.

In 1973, a political philosopher named John Rawls dropped a bomb on the utilitarian viewpoint. He focused on the idea of the social contract as the basis for a just society with his “Theory of Justice”. Here is Rawls explaining his point of view:

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by the many.

Rawls then sets out to define the principles of justice itself. How would we know that the rules that govern our society are, in fact, just? He comes up with two principles, which he refined many times over the course of his life. Here is one statement from a speech he gave in 1996, referenced in the Oxford Handbook of Political Theory:

  1. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal and basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and second, they are to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged members of society.

The first principle is called the “equal liberty principle”. The second is divided up into two parts: “fair equality of opportunity” and “the difference principle”. He goes on to state we are not allowed to trade the first principle for the second. We cannot trade our basic liberties for any benefit, regardless of who it benefits. Further, fair equality of opportunity comes before the difference principle. We cannot give an advantage to one person at the cost of another person’s fair access to opportunity. Finally: when we do have inequalities, they must be to the benefit of those with the least.

Rawls then defined the “social and economic” benefits in terms of the “primary social goods”. He defines these as “things we might want, whatsoever else we might want”. For Rawls, that meant things like freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and free choice of occupation. These are the things that we won’t ever trade. After that, we want all kinds of things: access, prestige, money. We accept inequalities in those things only if they meet the conditions of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle. They must be equally available to all, and benefit the least advantaged.

He justifies these principles through designing a game using a device he called “the original position”, but more commonly known as “the veil of ignorance”. Imagine we were brought together to design a society from scratch. We are not allowed to know in advance what position we will occupy. We are going to agree to some rules, then roll the dice to see where we will wind up. Will we be in the middle? The top? The bottom?

From this position, Rawls postulates that reasonable people would adopt his rules. We would need some basic liberty to exist, because we would not accept a situation where we wind up a slave. There is some unacceptable floor. We would require the ability to strengthen our social position, so we could improve our lot. Finally, we would mandate that those with the most cannot hoard their resources. Otherwise, our ability to improve will be limited by those with the most. From this position we can see if our system would be just: regardless of where you start, the game is fair. (Rawls theory is often summarized as “Justice as Fairness” for this reason.)

Rawls work has dominated political theory since he stated it. It forms the basis for almost all the study that has come after it, and depending on your perspective, has some holes. In most cases, these stem from the complexity inherent in talking about society on the scale of the human condition. If we scope things down to a single sustainable open source community, we can avoid many of those issues. We can use Rawls’ theory to test whether an existing open source community is just, and thus sustainable. From there, we can collect a set of principles that all sustainable free and open source communities should abide by.