Ottawa Citizen
Friday, March 08, 2002

Engineers, not lawyers, hold key to solving the world's problems

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

After writing about 10,000 of these columns, I have learned to sum up everything in 750 words. Today I offer a history of the world, where all its problems came from, and the solution. To bring the package in within the word limit, I have to resort to fiction. But there's truth in it.

A river separated two shires in merry Old England and a boat was available for common use. Over time, it was forgotten who owned the boat and a dispute developed because each shire wanted the boat parked on its side. If not there, one had to swim to fetch the boat.

When the residents were almost ready to go to war, the lords of the manors decided to settle the dispute by putting their champions, or advocates, to work. These were hard men on big horses who charged at each other with lances, axes, swords and anything else that could maim or kill.

A joust was held. Bleachers were set up and a crowd gathered. The champions had at each other for a couple of hours and eventually the issue was settled. The boat would be left on the east side of the river. It didn't much matter because nobody would take the boat back and swim home after using it anyway.

The advocates started to think there had to be a better way.

They became lawyers. It took a few hundred years to evolve, but the suit of armour and helmet were replaced by black gowns and wigs. The weapons were replaced by law books. The bleachers became courtroom benches. The issues were the same and settled in the same manner -- confrontation by two win-at-any-cost adversaries.

But now the champions couldn't lose. There were no broken bones or bumps and bruises. After the courtroom joust they could repair to the tavern and hoist a few. Win or lose, they got paid. They still held the admiration of the crowds in the bleachers.

As a result, when people demanded and won representational government, they tended to elect their champions. There were problems. Having evolved from a system of violent confrontation, the champion/lawyers' method of resolving disputes remained adversarial.

Adding to the problem was that their thought processes were shaped by law schools. As soon as elected, they set about doing what they had been trained to do. They solved problems by applying laws and, where there were no laws, they made new ones. Soon there were so many laws that nobody knew them all, so more lawyers had to be hired to try to keep this exploding pile of laws working.

It was an impossible task. By the time they learned the contents of one book of laws, the lawmakers had created two more books. Descended from men who could ride horses at a full gallop while wearing a full suit of armour and with the strength to hold a lance, nothing was impossible. Only the outward trappings of the champion had changed. In his (and now her) mind, they are still on snorting chargers, whelming the crowd.

Those of us in the bleachers struggle to survive in a society that is becoming increasingly hobbled by its own exploding laws. These laws go far beyond control of the boat on the river, and now reach into our homes. We can lose our children if a lawfully appointed child protector thinks we are applying too much discipline -- or too little.

We can lose our families through laws and courts designed by lawyers to resolve domestic disputes. The family is under attack. If the family fails, the society fails.

Where did we go wrong?

Back at the river in the fight over the boat. We used lawyers.

We should have used engineers.

They build bridges.

This is National Engineering Week, and my job is done in 641 words.

Bottom line

As an example of what lawyers do, we learn from an Associated Press story that a man in Bangor, Maine, is preparing to sue police because they were too slow in arresting him. He ran from the police into some woods, got lost and spent three days and nights starving and freezing. He lost some toes to frostbite.

Harvey Taylor, 48, says police should have made more of an effort to get him to the safety of a warm jail. Not everybody should have access to a knight in shining armour.

Dave Brown is the Citizen'ssenior editor. Send e-mail to Read previous columns at

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen