The Costs of Control

As a software developer I want to tell you some things about autonomy, so that the story below makes sense. Autonomy is really very important in software development. The reason has absolutely nothing to do with computers and everything to do with economics. If you want a really very clear self-aware and powerful example of Hayek at work then join a modern software development project.

This is what a modern project team takes for granted:

  • We do not know the solution.
  • We should try stuff and see what works empirically.
  • We will be able to work it out if we constantly inspect and adapt everything (especially ourselves).
  • None of us knows the whole answer.
  • The knowledge required to do so is largely implicit.

If that sounds like a summary of I, Pencil or a chapter from Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, then this is no co-incidence. A project team is like a mini-economy. Cooperation is the constant reality and the invisible flows of knowledge that cannot be enumerated or written down are just as crucial. Monetary exchanges happen at the edges of the team, and are a constantly present factor in every decision.

What does this mean in detail? Well it means that rather than everything running according to an agreed plan, with everything laid out like the procedures manual on a submarine, it means you must occasionally wing it. It is not uncommon to log onto a server and just have a poke about, with a clear goal but no clarity of method. This is why you see large numbers of people with effectively root access to production servers (i.e. the privilege to see and change anything). It is a security nightmare but is required to Get Stuff Done. You just have to trust people – they must have autonomy.

The above is largely a summary of why the next story I am about to tell is so gobsmackingly stupid. Anyone who thought they had reached the end of my series of posts about LPUK and was finally getting some hardcore philosophic theory is about to be disappointed. This story was told to me by the UK Libertarian Party’s missing Press Officer, the bloke who was at Liberty League who wasn’t Sean. The unacknowledged “middle” Press Officer, after Sean and before the noteworthy nationalist pagan David Parry. The guy whose name never came up on the LPUK website, the guy they didn’t mention in the David Parry inaugural press release.

This man’s name is Gunnar Hardy, another American volunteer and now the Press Officer for the International Alliance of Libertarian Parties. Gunnar likes to think of this as a promotion and I am sure he will enjoy manning IALP’s stall at FreedomFest in Las Vegas.

 

Gunnar Hardy

Once upon a time a developer wanted to log into a server.

Gunnar was appointed Director of Public Relations and volunteered to take on the task of refreshing the current, stale, Libertarian Party website. Blessed with such a job title (and the business cards to prove it) it’s natural that he expected a degree of autonomy. He says he wanted something “slick, sexy, better than the other party websites out there”, and to make it profitable: prioritizing merchandise sales and membership. That might not be your intellectual cup-of-tea but it is a clear and reasonable goal for a party taking just £1000 in revenue, and furthermore Gunnar was doing the work.

He reviewed the designs submitted by the existing South African web developer and rejected them. Putting his trust in his network of contacts he reached out to someone who did the development for projects Gunnar has worked on before and he started out on a new creative path. Having built the basic layout up to a high standard, it was time to log in, deploy that framework and integrate to payment and eCommerce services.

His request for credentials was denied.

Be careful what you believe, I might have hacked into your eyes.

Laughing_man_logoThe Libertarian Party is a group with (rightly) fewer than 70 members yet is apparently such a high profile target that administrative access to it’s servers for volunteers is simply not permissible. Who would target such an entity? Apparently I would. Yes, me the guy who provided the negative outlier in a study of latent hacking stills conducted on behalf of Northrop Grumman by utterly flunking a hacking test. Me who failed to spot the publicly disclosed contradiction in the Libertarian Party accounts for a whole two years. Somehow, for them, I am a Super Class A hacker fixated on the destruction of their party. Rather than the poorly motivated critic and under-resourced blogger I see, they see The Laughing Man, bent on revenge for crimes against humanity. If I was not so wedded to objective reality my ego might have been soothed, instead, I struggle to report this with a straight face.

This deserves a straight face

The personalities at the top of the Party are clearly still fighting a largely imaginary battle. Rather than looking out with hope they look inwards with fear and suspicion. The controversy triggered by Anna Raccoons April 2011 sting is still ongoing for them. In their mind there is still an organised faction fighting them, the truth is people are struggling to remember to keep up with them.

This climate of fear has serious consequences. It must be hugely off putting to start with, and seems to put off even them. One of the few outward looking activities they have organised was a social gathering in Bristol. Gunnar tells me that Andrew was there and he launched into a heated debate with a new member. Andrew was always incredibly keen on his specific policies. He once strained his credibility by pushing hard for a motion to make the Libertarian Party a Constitutional Libertarian Party, an unpopular measure that failed completely to attract the necessary votes. Rather than resigning, he shrugged that off. How did the debate in Bristol go? Andrew “continued to shut down, disrespect, and berate the man just for the simple reason that he didn’t agree with Andrew” this was the new member’s first face to face contact with the party. It is no surprise that he left a few days later. During the 2011 split Andrew continually spoke as if he faced a faction of anarchists, seeking to make the LPUK an anarchists’ party. This was clearly untrue, many of the loudest voices in what was really the “pro-audit faction” were minarchists but I wonder whether he actually believed his story? Was this conversation in Bristol his effort to screen new members for ideological differences?

Perhaps it was the way Gunnar stepped in to defuse that situation, perhaps Gunnar is just too opinionated on business matters (he is a business student) but when he resigned his letter described the atmosphere within the party as “hostile”. It is clear he and Andrew did not get on. For his part, Andrew would shower Gunnar with requests to make contact with various groups and public figures and get various things done. Gunnar felt unable to rely on David Parry since David did not often contribute to what was needed. Their relative ages notwithstanding, it is clear Parry was the disengaged junior volunteer and Gunnar the involved and engaged director. Andrew didn’t seem to appreciate that Gunnar was left carrying the whole marketing function of the party on top of his studies. He filled his dorm wall with lists of LPUK priorities and tackled them in the best possible order, but eventually Gunnar was forced to push back and tell Andrew to adjust his expectations.

They disagreed over the website a couple more times. Andrew wanted biographies of party figures added to the page in a way that Gunnar felt would interfere with the user’s journey to join or buy from the party and insisted the site should stay “slick” and “fast”. Yet for all Andrew’s demands he failed to keep abreast of the commercial reality of what was going on. The South African developer (rightly) queried her money and Gunnar was surprised with the news that Andrew had committed to paying her £300.  Andrew heaped the blame on Gunnar for “breaking the contract” – a contract that predated his involvement.

The tipping point came when Gunnar, quite at random, used the story of Andrew’s resignation from this site in place of a news item in a private demonstration server. He copied and pasted one of my Libertarian Home articles to test the new Libertarian Party website. The inner circle exploded with activity. Long dormant NCC members became active again, and started flying around the country for meetings. Despite “resigning” Andrew was still very much in charge at this time. Gunnar was cast as a Libertarian Home spy, or Marxist spy or an agent of the Government sent to disrupt it’s growing minarchist nemesis. Gunnar left in short order.

Privately he wrote “Albeit I’m young, I am a professional and not out for vengeance. I would like my story to serve as a warning”. For Gunnar the worst thing about this tale is that he might see history repeat itself. It is one thing for one party to end up this way, quite another if this becomes a pattern for the movement. It needn’t be the case.

Oh, and another thing….

hillary-htThat is not the end of the story.

Guy Montrose – the best thing to happen to the party since the Southwark drinks – the guy who got the Facebook page going and turned it into something actually useful and the guy that founded IALP (an organisation Andrew is desperate to be associated with). That Guy – he left too. Time for a break. Didn’t want to talk to me about it. No drama, please. Did Gunnar’s persecution as a “spy” have something to do with it? I don’t know, but it seems likely.

What I am certain of reporting is that a second secret, unacknowledged, member of staff left the party shortly afterwards. She demurely declined to comment too, but when I asked her to prove she was ever part of the Party she could not find any evidence she was there. The only evidence that this part of the story is true is her mention on the IALP website (which Gunnar also produced) and a posting on Andrew Wither’s Facebook that confirms that Hilary Hackleman was once Deputy Chairman of the Party. The recipient of yet another senior job title who was never mentioned on the Libertarian Party website, new or old. “No resignation letter was necessary I guess, I didn’t even really exist.” she said. Gunnar believes her exit was certainly prompted, in part, by his mistreatment.

slick-lpuk-website-demo

I’m not sure exactly why, but Tom – administrator of the LPUK Youth Facebook page – also left the scene at about the same time.

Gunnar’s says his posts on Facebook were deleted after he handed over access to the Facebook page to Liam Hillman (LPUK’s nominations officer). David Parry’s self-promoting press release is a work of art, reminiscent of the State Science Institute’s vague condemnation of Rearden Steel it talks about David’s elevation within the party as if he were crossing into virgin territory:

Parry has contributed (behind the scenes) to Libertarian gatherings across the decades. However, he now feels the need to firm up his commitments

There is no acknowledgement that he is something like the sixth person in the role in just seven years (preceded by Gunnar, Sean, Ken, Chris and by some accounts Andrew himself). Gunnar has been erased from the official Party record. His influence sucked down the memory hole. The website he built rejected in favour of the inferior South African version, for no reason except for the fear that acknowledging the reality of what has been going on will cause the Party bubble to burst.

It seems as if the people doing all the work at LPUK were kept in the closet and only those people trusted by Andrew Withers were acknowledged properly. I can only conclude that this is another means of suppressing the imaginary opposing anarchist faction within the Party, of limiting the “damage” these people can do. The fact that they have gone shows the danger in this fearful approach to life: who is going to do the work now? Who is going to help you recruit another round of volunteers? If the party rebuilds itself now it will be thanks to a third round of new volunteers. The number of such volunteers who have not worked out who you are is dwindling. It is time to shut up shop and leave a space for others to fill.

The constraints Andrew applied get in the way of an efficiently functioning party. His unwelcoming attitude is driving away members. His persecution of those that dare to disagree with him is causing his volunteers to depart in droves. His failure to confront the reality that his party filed contradictory accounts due to errors on his watch makes it impossible for the well informed to contribute, leaving him to rely on ignorance as a hiker relies on quicksand. He cannot go on TV. He seeks to work outside the country he wishes to influence as that is the last refuge where he is unknown.

Such is the cost of wanting to be in control. If his control was taking us anywhere it would be tolerable. It is not.