5th December 2010
Wikileaks – a classical liberal perspective
A flood of confidential information has been leaked into the public domain by Wikileaks. This offers a particularly interesting case study for moral and political thought as it tests the limits of freedom of expression – limits that I discussed at some length in this blog post.
Two tensions are involved:
a) that we must have unhampered information on what governments do;
b) that information which forms part of the current business of a government must be protected to allow frank and free discussion within government and enable it to make considered judgements.
A clear exception to (b) exists with regard to whisleblowing. If, let's say, someone has discovered that Hitler is undertaking a secret project likely to cause significant loss of innocent life, then publication of such confidential data is perfectly defensible, for doing so could save innocent lives.
But what about the case when no whistleblowing is involved or no harm is prevented? What if all we have is a fanatic who is fixated on releasing all information that governments hold? Worse, what if the confidential information is part of a strategic operation to save lives: an operation that could be compromised by the leak?
Unlike the libertine, the classical liberal is aware that governance cannot always be fully transparent.
The business of governance does involve access to certain discreet information. Such information could have been obtained from, say, a dissenter of communist N.Korea. Releasing such information could, hypothetically, set back the advance of freedom in N.Korea by decades. I'm sure we'd all oppose the release of information that can harm lives. There are clearly no natural rights to all information regarding the functioning of the state.
My good friend (and FTI speakers panelist) Atanu Dey asks: "I cannot for the life of me understand why information that is good for the leaders is somehow not good for the people. I can understand that dictators don’t want people to know the truth. But in democratic societies? Why?"
To Atanu I'd suggest: by all means let the truth be known. Indeed, archival laws in modern democracies usually permit the release of such confidential information 30 years after the event. Such delayed release is appropriate and – in most cases -sufficient for truth to be known. So I'm not saying that information should be hidden from public view for ever.
But I'm suggesting that there are no urgent natural rights of citizens to know everything that happens inside a government immediately as it happens. Upon electing our representatives, we effectively delegate our powers to them and expect them to exercise diligence and good judgement on our behalf. We can't demand to sit on their shoulder and watch everything they do or say.
Would would Atanu say if commercial-in-confidence information belonging to his (or any other company) is forcibly released in the public domain – information that includes confidential statements made by board members and other confidential conversations and emails? We would then become better aware of the truth about his company. But is knowledge about such 'truth' our birthright? No! It is private information the release of which must be protected by the law.
Similarly, many operational decisions of a government must be accorded the shelter of secrecy. All reasons that apply to not releasing operational company information apply equally to governments, and more. In particular, the more such leaks become common, the less will be the information that diplomats share with their bosses, thus making the world less, not more safe.
By all means support good whistle-blowing. But mindless release of information that perhaps embarrasses governments but ends up preventing free and frank discourse within governments, is not something I'd like to support.
This case (the release) can be attributed to severe failure of governance systems in USA. Such information should not have leaked out in the first place. Whether Wikileaks has broken any laws or not, one thing I can safely predict: that laws will soon be enacted all over the world to criminalise such acts where no direct public purpose (such as saving lives) is involved.
Whistleblowing is good. Mindless disruption of government operations and strategies is not good.