Saturday, December 11, 2010

WikiLeaks: Pro et Contra

I'm of two minds about the Wikileaks revelations. Is this a good thing or not?

Polymath right-wing commentator John Derbyshire, in his weekly audio blog, is also of two minds, and expresses both of his minds pretty well:

Julian Assange, the Wikileaker, is said — by his mother, who ought to know — to be driven by, quote, "a deep-seated mistrust of authority." Now, a deep-seated mistrust of authority is no bad thing. It is in fact a very American thing, though Mr. Assange is Australian. Let X be the number of people — world-wide, throughout history — who lost their property, liberty, or life through placing too much trust in authority; and let Y be the number of people who lost their property, liberty, or life through placing too little trust in authority. Is there any doubt that X is much, much bigger than Y? Is there any righteous American conservative who doesn't feelsome sympathy stirring in his breast at hearing the phrase "a deep-seated mistrust of authority," in an age when authority is instantiated in the likes of Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and Hillary Clinton?. ...

Well, all of that was the heart speaking. Then the head spoke up; and for the record, I am very much a head guy, not a heart guy. Raison d'etat is not an empty phrase in my lexicon. To preserve and advance the interests of their citizens, nations need to do certain things, not all of which should be made known. There are useful lies to be told, useful pretences to be preserved, useful people to be protected. Some of that needs secrecy.

Right now, I lean to the side of John's "heart." On the one hand, I have no problem with government secrecy per se. Everyone has a right of self-defense against bad guys, and that right includes not only the use of force but of deceit as well. You do owe not an obligation of truthfulness to those who are actively trying to rob or assault you. Legitimate governments -- assuming any such exist -- excercise these rights on our behalf, and any organization that is going to use defensive force and fraud must also use secrecy.

But this is, if you'll pardon my cliche, a double-edged sword, which can cut the wielder before it damages the enemy. Government secrecy protects it against its legitimate enemies -- and its own citizens as well. This is an evil that seems to be inherent in the nature of government itself. There are no states without state secrets. And yet state secrecy makes it impossible for the voters to have exercise any real control over the state. You have no hope of controlling a thing if you don't even know what it is. And some of the information Wikileaks is revealing is clearly stuff the voters should know.

There is no perfect institutional solution to this problem. The notion of a state that is democratically controlled by its own citizenry is thus an illusion. Maybe a necessary part of the best solution we can have -- a partial, inadequate, and dangerous one -- is such non-institutional, indeed criminal, initiatives as these leaks.

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