I have been surprised that a limited and entirely informal poll of my colleagues reveals that most do not harbor much sympathy for Wkileaks. This is especially true after the recent release of US diplomatic cables which are often decried as of little global significance, essentially amounting to high-stakes gossip. I would be curious to find out how readers of this blog feel about this. But I am even more curious to know people’s reaction to what strikes me as an obvious defense of Wkileaks. Following the advice of a friend, I’ll call it the Dynamic Equilibrium Theory of Government Secrecy. The idea is roughly as follows:
I think most of us would agree that to carry out its duties effectively, even a democratically elected government must have the ability to keep some things secret from its citizens. However, this is an invitation to corruption. I think there is a genuine paradox here: although we all have an interest in giving our government the ability to keep things secret, doing so makes us incapable of knowing if that government is not abusing this power against our interests. Indeed, the veil of popular ignorance all but ensures that governments will abuse the power of secrecy.
One way to defend Wikileaks, even when it publishes frivolous documents whose dissemination violates our short-term self-interest, is to say that it might serve as a partial and admittedly imperfect solution to the secrecy paradox. On this view, the primary function of an organization like Wikileaks is to keep governments on their toes, ensuring that nobody can be 100% certain any particular secret will never be disclosed. To paint a somewhat idealized picture of the situation, one can imagine two opposing forces at play. One tends to enshroud more information behind a veil of secrecy and the other works to poke holes in that veil. Democratic citizens are clearly worse off if either force completely overpowers the other. But there is a global optimum somewhere in between, where both forces serve to balance one another out and we are all better off. Of course, I am not saying that Wikileaks has succeeded in bringing us to this point. But my sense is that it pushes us in the right direction, with room to spare.