Friday, December 3, 2010

Machinery of Government

Recently I have been reading Kipling's 'Plain Tales from the Hills', an amazingly good book.  When I am done I will write more about it.  But today I will bring up one point that relates to current events.  This is from the story 'Consequences':

Mrs. Hauksbee gasped as she read, for the first glimpse of the naked machinery of the Great Indian Government, stripped of its casings, and lacquer, and paint, and guard-rails, impresses even the most stupid man.

Over the last week, the world has gotten a glimpse of the naked machinery of international diplomacy.  It is an extraordinary sight.  The Wikileaks publication of diplomatic cables will change the world in important ways.  People who know about technology have been predicting something like this for decades, but the actual event was like 9-11 for the diplomatic community.

The reaction of our government to this leak really disturbs me.  When Wikileaks released a trove of military documents, the government made some noise about it but did not really take any action.  But now, they seem engaged in an all-out cyberwar against the site.  To me, this is backwards.  The military files did not really tell us that much, but they may have put our soldiers and intelligence contacts at risk.  The diplomatic files, by contrast, reveal a lot of lies and corruption at the highest levels of a lot of governments, but the risk of actually putting lives at risk is a lot smaller.

Basically, our government has revealed by its actions that it cares far more about the reputation of its diplomats than the lives of its soldiers.

I think that the principle of openness in general, and Wikileaks in particular, are good for the world.  Secrecy is a weapon.  It may be a necessary weapon, to safeguard things like your bank account, but we must always remember that it is a weapon.  You keep information about yourself secret for the same reason you lock your doors and keep a shotgun by your bed.  Secrecy is a collection of lies, evasions, and dishonesty that let you win social and political games in an adversarial world.  An honest world with no secrecy is like a peaceful world with no weapons: an excellent goal and dream even if it is practically impossible.

Government bureaucracies will always try to accumulate as many weapons as they possibly can, and claim that it is for the benefit of the country.  The citizens of the country must resist this trend for the same reason they must resist the accumulation of physical weapons and military power by their governments.  Weapons may be necessary, but they are always and everywhere a necessary evil, useful only if they prevent greater evils.

The optimal amount of government secrecy is certainly not zero, but I believe that it is much lower than the amount we currently see.  Wikileaks helps us move in the right direction.  If our government could be trusted to only classify what was necessary for the country, and not necessary for bureaucrats, then Wikileaks would be pointless and damaging.  But given the tendency of governments toward excessive secrecy, leaks like these are good.  They tell the public what is really going on, and threats of disclosure should make governments less likely to lie to their citizens.

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