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Archive for January 15th, 2013

Parliamentary democracy is far from a perfect system of government. Its party system and first past the post elections are both serious flaws that seem increasingly unsuited to the modern world. However, it does include one concept that I find invaluable: that of the loyal opposition.

To anyone used to another system of government, the words “loyal opposition” may seem like an oxymoron. If someone was loyal, how could they oppose the government? If someone opposed the government, in what sense could they be loyal? Americans, with their system of confrontational politics, have a particularly hard time with the concept.

As a concept, the loyal opposition is reminiscent of the devil’s advocate. The assumption behind both is that questioning decisions and suggesting ways of modifying them makes for better decisions. It is also assumed that, in raising questions and making suggestions, the opposition is ultimately committed to making the government’s decisions better, and has a genuine allegiance to the country.

To someone trying to comprehend the idea, the loyal opposition sounds absurd at first. Since the opposition wants to form the government someday, surely its main motivation must be to discredit the government at every opportunity, rather than helping it to pass better laws or to take more useful actions. And today, to a large extent, people who think this way would be right.

All the same, the concept of the loyal opposition continues to exist. Especially in times of crisis, it allows a government and its opposition to act together. Yet, even in untroubled moments, it is not unusual to learn that the same people who exchange carefully restrained abuse in the House of Commons are in the habit of having a drink together in the evening.

I mention the concept because the loyal opposition is often the position I find myself in as a writer about free and open source software (FOSS). Despite the speed at which FOSS is growing, those involved in the community tend to be a small group. They know each other and, although feuds exist, they often support each other uncritically. They exchange praise easily, and rarely criticize each other – a situation that doesn’t always make for the best possible decisions.

Sometimes, users can correct this tendency by protesting clearly and repeatedly. However, users are not easily stirred up, and too much happens that would be better for a review.

That’s where people like me come in. I am all in favor of FOSS (if I wasn’t, I would be off doing something more lucrative), but there are frequently times when more feedback is useful, when a suggestion of alternatives is needed, or someone simply to say in public what everyone is saying in private emails and tweets. Nobody else is doing these things, so people like me write commentaries that do.

My criticism is rarely as harsh as it could be. In fact, you could probably get an accurate sense of my opinions by how diplomatically I phrase them. But, like the loyal opposition, I believe – perhaps arrogantly – that the community makes better decisions because someone says them at all.

Contrary to the knee-jerk cynicism of the Internet, it’s not because I am a paid troll, or set out to increase page hits by deliberately creating controversy. It’s because, like the loyal opposition, I am convinced that, frequently, voicing dissent is a greater sign of loyalty than unquestioning support.

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