The bikeshed problem (aka as Parkinson’s law of triviality) is based on the observation of C. Northcote Parkinson that members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. The typical example is a committee whose job is to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant that spends the majority of its time on discussions about what materials to use for the staff bike-shed.

The German Civil Code (BGB) is well respected.

“Never, I should think, has so much first-rate brain power been put into an act of legislation”1

and

“the best code that the world has yet seen”.

It is praised for its precision of language and structural clarity. Japan, Greece, Portugal and most recently China took inspiration from this pinnacle of German legislation that entered into force on the first of January, 1900. (Is that the German way to salute a new century ? Publishing Civil Codes that have been in the making for nearly 20 years).

Such an intellectual undertaking is incomprehensible to some, and the comments and discussions in German parliament show that bikeshedding is not limited to engineering.

The rabbit debate threatened the whole German Civil Code: Cute little rodents and the question who would pay for their nibbling nearly downed the BGB. The break-up was prevented by making the sections on marriage a little less liberal. Thus the rabbit nibbled away some aspects of marriage the “center party” considered too liberal. (Bismarck, Germany’s iron chancellor:Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.) Other speakers contributed to the §§ related to insanity due to alcoholism, the latter part of which most attendees apparently felt familiar with. The debate elicited comments on the right age to marry (“I consider marriage before the 24. Or 25th year of age a misfortune –with very limited exceptions- and I do not want to bear responsibility to promote these premature weddings through this law. ” 118. Session, July 1st, 1896, page 3073 protocol of the discussions of the Reichstag) and other views, that nowadays provoke more merriment than argument.

This merriment however seems superficial. Any detail viewed in contrast to a grand scheme seems farcically irrelevant. The triviality Parkinson discerned can spring to life in the color of the alarm switch or the roof of the bikeshed. Any detail seems trivial. But not only details are prone to attract bloviation. The fundamental decisions similarly can be discussed on a very superficial level; discussion of basic principles is no cure for vacuousness.

The secret of the public servants to overcome petty discussions were at least twofold: technology and tightly scheduled meetings. The technology that was unknown to the country bumpkins travelling to the capital to discuss the commission’s draft was the telephone. The drafters of the Civil code were better and faster informed than their pedestrian critics. Furthermore, parliament voted on each section individually, thus avoiding debates targeting the Code as a whole. Finally, the voting schedule was so stressful that the minutes of the sessions recorded “silly cheerfulness” after the final vote had been cast and members of parliament, who had suffered “African heat” in the summer of 1896 were released from further travails.

As exemplified by the German Civil Code, any great intellectual endeavor, whether engineering or legislation, needs to employ the subterfuges of procedure and technology to drive and kick the herd to the temples of happiness. Particularly apt for this purpose seems to concentrate discussions on small sections. Discussions about the systematic approach can be endless and fruitless. A certain physical discomfort -start manipulating the AC- seems to similarly sharpen focus. Finally, assure good means of communication among your allies. Thus prepared, even a work of brilliance will pass.

  1. Maitland quoted in Schwarz, in: Symbolae Friburgenses in honorem Ottonis Lenel, 1935, p. 425-482, 470f.

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