Wikileaks and the Balance of Political Principles

Abstract: Wikileaks has created turmoil because people line up on different sides, seeing things in black and white, either championing transparency and making Assange a modern hero, or championing security and demanding his head on a plate. But these reactions fail to see that good governance requires the appropriate balance of principles.

The Wikileaks website created turmoil because it represents a contest between two major principles of governance: security and transparency. Modern political theory since Hobbes argues that security is the main reason for a government to exist. It creates a rule of law that protects people from “the state of nature” which is anarchy. On the other hand, transparency gives a government legitimacy, for if the rules are unknown or if some people are treated by rules different than the social compact, the political system is considered unjust and the state is likely to stumble or fail.

In a democracy, where the people are supposed to be in control of their own government, transparency of government actions is essential for the people to keep power. Knowledge is power, and the persons with the most complete knowledge tend to have greater power. This is also true in the economic sphere where special knowledge can lead to greater wealth. Economist George Stieglitz shared a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on information assymetry. He raised the ire of many people in both Washington and the International Monetary Fund with his demands for greater transparency that posed a threat to those with great wealth and power.

On the other hand, there are genuine reasons for secrets. Parents need not give their children access to their credit cards or bank accounts. Teachers need not give out the questions on an exam ahead of time. Homeowners, businesses, and jails need not give out the codes for locks on their doors. States should not publish missile locations or launch codes on the internet.

Wikileaks is also a challenge because its leaks cover that blurred area between sovereign states and global community. On the one hand, there is a rising consciousness that all people of the world have equal dignity and rights and ought to be treated the same. On the other hand, we have states with sovereign power that want to put national interests and security above global justice.

Foreign policy is often a quest for information asymmetry. The U.S. wants to know where North Korea’s missiles are hidden, but does not want North Korea to know where its missiles are hidden. The U.S. wants to know if Iran has nuclear weapons, but Iran doesn’t want others to know. Knowledge is power. On the other hand, the United Nations wants all states to subscribe to a World Court and treat one another with respect.

Those with power, those who hold secrets, don’t want leaks. Those who don’t have information, those who are in the dark, want it. Governments want corporations to be transparent so they can control them. Corporations want governments to be transparent so they can control them. We all want other people to be transparent, but do not want to be transparent ourselves.

In my chapter on transparency in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0, I offered a “golden rule of transparency”:

Do not ask for transparency from others unless you have provided transparency to them.

There are genuine security interests at stake related to Wikileaks, and the PFC who sits in jail for divulging classified information deserves to be there. However, as Rodney B. McDaniel, Executive Secretary of the National Security Council under President Reagan said, only 10 percent of classification is “for legitimate protection of secrets.” President Clinton declassified over 200,000 older documents, but this caused fear in the hearts of the bureaucrats under his administration and even more after 9/11. Unnecessary classification of documents actually increased after Clinton’s transparency efforts.

Robert Gates, U.S. Secretary of Defense, said security concerns with the Wikileaks release seem overblown:

Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments—some governments—deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

Yet, the Washington Times has called the leaks treason. Giving up state secrets is treason.The State Department is outraged because secrecy was betrayed. But, despite this betrayal, Wikileaks reveals that far more material is classified than needs to be, and the lack of openness and demands for secrecy cause people to suspect collusion.

There needs to be stricter criteria for what gets classified. Most documents classified in the name of security are for the purpose of hiding abuses of power, like Adam and Eve’s use of a fig leaf, and not to provide genuine security to citizens. With respect to transparency, our systems of government are dysfunctional. More transparency would create better government and more honest bureaucrats. It is currently way too easy for bureaucrats to abuse citizens in the name of security. President Obama was elected as the “Transparency President” and it is clear that this struck a chord with the American voters.

Good journalists know that, as a rule, if people are hiding something it is to protect themselves from others learning about something they shouldn’t have done. Or, they are keeping some secret that gives them unjustified power. Most of what gets called “national interest” is some “special interest” masquerading as national interest.

The over 250,000 cables released contain some genuine security concerns. These cables are written by agents of U.S.citizens, and as agents they work for the citizens. In this respect, there is a greater argument for monitoring public communication than the conversations of private citizens, as citizens need the knowledge to hold their agents accountable.

Agency theory is inadequately understood by most people and improper agency structures characterize most modern political and financial institutions. Agency involves a transfer of power from the principal (citizen or stockholder) to the agent (a CEO, legislator, or bureaucrat). When agency involves a few people in face-to-face relations it is fairly easy to hold an agent accountable, however in their research done in the 1930s, Berle and Means noted that the interests of corporate managers and shareholders diverged in practice and that millions of passive shareholders translated into the “absolute power in the corporate managements.” The same principle applies when one U.S. Senator is elected as the agent for 10 million people. It is very difficult for individual citizens to hold senators accountable after they are elected.

Wikileaks violated the laws, but it also should serve notice that genuine agency and transparency concerns exist and that proper checks and balances of competing political principles are woefully lacking in the modern world. Corruption and abuse of power seek to cloak themselves under the banner of security interests in order create elite ruling classes that are a threat to the security of those they are sworn to protect and the constitutions they are supposed to uphold. Citizens in both the United States and the European Union are witnessing the fruits of their lack of vigilance. This is a core underlying concern and reason for the rise of the “Tea Party” movement and its European counterparts. Such movements will continue arise as leaders of the so-called “free world” continue to violate the major principles of sound governance and hide corrupt actions under veils of secrecy.

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