Thoughts on economics and liberty

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; 

vs.

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.

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23 thoughts on “Wikileaks – a classical liberal perspective
  1. raj

    I think Wikileaks is doing a great job except for the recent diplomatic cables release. The Iraq and Afghan war logs gave a grim picture of what the U.S has been up to- Human rights abuses lowered body count. First the war in Iraq is a joke. There were no WMD's. It's for oil. The war is being funded by the tax payer and they have a right to know how their money is being used to kill innocent people and to maintain Abu Gharibs.
    I believe Julian Assange is libertarian anarchist and (if that's his belief), he is doing a great job proving that governments are evil.

     
  2. raj

    I think Wikileaks is doing a great job except for the recent diplomatic cables release. The Iraq and Afghan war logs gave a grim picture of what the U.S has been up to- Human rights abuses lowered body count. First the war in Iraq is a joke. There were no WMD's. It's for oil. The war is being funded by the tax payer and they have a right to know how their money is being used to kill innocent people and to maintain Abu Gharibs.
    I believe Julian Assange is libertarian anarchist and (if that's his belief), he is doing a great job proving that governments are evil.

     
  3. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Raj

    Julian Assange is entitled to his belief in libertarian anarchism (if that's what is driving him – something that is not obvious), but there is NO cogent method available to him to convert the world into a functioning anarchy.The core function of a government is defence and security. I am unable to see how a private organisation would do this job better.

    I don't see how it was known to US prior to the Iraq war that Iraq did not have WMD. There's not a shred of evidence to demonstrate that. The Abu Gharib issue is definitely a major example of mismanagement but by watching this video you'd get a more nuanced view on it http://soniajaspal.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/what-makes-humans-evil/

    I have no problems with Assange showing human rights abuses by US, but why is he so focused on the West? The greatest abuses occur in countries about which we have no data from Wikileaks because they terrorise their citizens so badly. 

    The business of government is not always pleasant, but at least in the West there are checks and balances. I want to know why China does not figure in Assange's wikileaks, or North Korea, or Burma, or Pakistan.

    He is basically throwing mud around the place. Much of what he is doing will end up ENDANGERING the lives of people in the relatively free nations, particularly by giving oxygen to the libertarian and socialist lunatic fringe.

    Without offering a BETTER system, don't destroy the best system that exists. That's what a responsible person should do. 

    For instance, I'm not advocating destruction of India's horribly flawed governance system. I'm talking about improving it. What does Assange have to offer the world? Breaking things is easy. Building is VERY HARD! Assange doesn't have it in him to help build a world where there is greater peace.

    He has no solution to Saddam Hussain or China or N.Korea. He is expecting that in this dirty world, where ALL (100%) of the the dirt is coming from the MANY UNFREE nations, that the free nations should remain 100% clean. That's not a reasonable expectation.

    Let's not give this Wikileaks thing much oxygen. It is a distraction from the core business of governments – to provide security to their citizens.

    Regards

    Sanjeev

     
  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Raj

    Julian Assange is entitled to his belief in libertarian anarchism (if that's what is driving him – something that is not obvious), but there is NO cogent method available to him to convert the world into a functioning anarchy.The core function of a government is defence and security. I am unable to see how a private organisation would do this job better.

    I don't see how it was known to US prior to the Iraq war that Iraq did not have WMD. There's not a shred of evidence to demonstrate that. The Abu Gharib issue is definitely a major example of mismanagement but by watching this video you'd get a more nuanced view on it http://soniajaspal.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/what-makes-humans-evil/

    I have no problems with Assange showing human rights abuses by US, but why is he so focused on the West? The greatest abuses occur in countries about which we have no data from Wikileaks because they terrorise their citizens so badly. 

    The business of government is not always pleasant, but at least in the West there are checks and balances. I want to know why China does not figure in Assange's wikileaks, or North Korea, or Burma, or Pakistan.

    He is basically throwing mud around the place. Much of what he is doing will end up ENDANGERING the lives of people in the relatively free nations, particularly by giving oxygen to the libertarian and socialist lunatic fringe.

    Without offering a BETTER system, don't destroy the best system that exists. That's what a responsible person should do. 

    For instance, I'm not advocating destruction of India's horribly flawed governance system. I'm talking about improving it. What does Assange have to offer the world? Breaking things is easy. Building is VERY HARD! Assange doesn't have it in him to help build a world where there is greater peace.

    He has no solution to Saddam Hussain or China or N.Korea. He is expecting that in this dirty world, where ALL (100%) of the the dirt is coming from the MANY UNFREE nations, that the free nations should remain 100% clean. That's not a reasonable expectation.

    Let's not give this Wikileaks thing much oxygen. It is a distraction from the core business of governments – to provide security to their citizens.

    Regards

    Sanjeev

     
  5. Supratim

    Sanjeev:
    Just one point in rebuttal to your comment here:
     
    "I don't see how it was known to US prior to the Iraq war that Iraq did not have WMD. There's not a shred of evidence to demonstrate that."
     
    How would you expect anyone to prove a negative? That is what you are asking.
     
    On the other hand, there is sufficient evidence available now, on NYT/Economist/Stratfor/Guardian websites and other links, which conclusively show that the so-called evidence on Iraq having WMDs was extremely poor, at best, and manufactured out of thin air, at worst. There is now no debate about this any longer – Tony Blair was even hauled up before UK parliament, twice, to judge his culpability in the whole matter.
     
    Assange's website has been in existence for many years – I have followed Wikileaks for over 2 years now – it is just that this is the first time that he has been offered such extensive and intensive material. As a journalist, he fails in his duty, if he does not publish what sources offer him, in all trust, if he finds the material authentic. And, please be aware that he vets the material extensively and he is not a dilletante as you make him out to be. The last reading of his website said that they still have material, which will take them 2 years to publish and have hence stopped ACCEPTING new material. The website has been releasing material in tranches, sometimes in collaboration with the NYT/Guardian, to ensure that all material is read and scanned for harmful references to LIVE, CURRENT action before being released.
     
    These are not the actions of an irresponsible person – or one who just believes in transparency for transparency's sake.
     
    Cheers
     
     

     
  6. Supratim

    Sanjeev:
    Just one point in rebuttal to your comment here:
     
    "I don't see how it was known to US prior to the Iraq war that Iraq did not have WMD. There's not a shred of evidence to demonstrate that."
     
    How would you expect anyone to prove a negative? That is what you are asking.
     
    On the other hand, there is sufficient evidence available now, on NYT/Economist/Stratfor/Guardian websites and other links, which conclusively show that the so-called evidence on Iraq having WMDs was extremely poor, at best, and manufactured out of thin air, at worst. There is now no debate about this any longer – Tony Blair was even hauled up before UK parliament, twice, to judge his culpability in the whole matter.
     
    Assange's website has been in existence for many years – I have followed Wikileaks for over 2 years now – it is just that this is the first time that he has been offered such extensive and intensive material. As a journalist, he fails in his duty, if he does not publish what sources offer him, in all trust, if he finds the material authentic. And, please be aware that he vets the material extensively and he is not a dilletante as you make him out to be. The last reading of his website said that they still have material, which will take them 2 years to publish and have hence stopped ACCEPTING new material. The website has been releasing material in tranches, sometimes in collaboration with the NYT/Guardian, to ensure that all material is read and scanned for harmful references to LIVE, CURRENT action before being released.
     
    These are not the actions of an irresponsible person – or one who just believes in transparency for transparency's sake.
     
    Cheers
     
     

     
  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Supratim

    A lot of internal journalistic trash and babble has been released. All that this has done is to harm internal relations between nations at a critical juncture.

    I agree that evidence for WMDs was manufactured out of thin air, but not by Bush. His CIA chief did that and he resigned, later. At THAT time if such information was published, it would have been fine. Publishing later is also fine so long as information about the specific facts is published.

    What bothers me is publishing operational cables and correspondence that serves no purpose but to harm relations between nations. And there is no knowing what else he has got.

    I am HAPPY with many things Wikileaks has published. No problem with whistleblowing.

    Note there is a fine line – and I stick to that distinction that I’ve made in all my blog posts on this subject: whistleblowing yes, mindless release of operational material – No.

    I’m not saying that Wikileaks should be shut down. I’m saying it should be shut down IN ITS CURRENT FORM AND SHAPE. There is a fine line that Assange has crossed and I believe his actions have become irresponsible. If he can demonstrate genuine public interest, no problem. Let him (and anyone else) then freely publish anything.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  8. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Supratim

    A lot of internal journalistic trash and babble has been released. All that this has done is to harm internal relations between nations at a critical juncture.

    I agree that evidence for WMDs was manufactured out of thin air, but not by Bush. His CIA chief did that and he resigned, later. At THAT time if such information was published, it would have been fine. Publishing later is also fine so long as information about the specific facts is published.

    What bothers me is publishing operational cables and correspondence that serves no purpose but to harm relations between nations. And there is no knowing what else he has got.

    I am HAPPY with many things Wikileaks has published. No problem with whistleblowing.

    Note there is a fine line – and I stick to that distinction that I’ve made in all my blog posts on this subject: whistleblowing yes, mindless release of operational material – No.

    I’m not saying that Wikileaks should be shut down. I’m saying it should be shut down IN ITS CURRENT FORM AND SHAPE. There is a fine line that Assange has crossed and I believe his actions have become irresponsible. If he can demonstrate genuine public interest, no problem. Let him (and anyone else) then freely publish anything.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  9. Supratim

    Dear Sanjeev,

    You say that Wikileaks in its "current form and state" should be shut down – but, this is a very problematic concept for me.
     
    BECAUSE, you are saying that the Journalist, in this case, Assange, must make a decision about what he should and can publish or not – in effect, you are giving him the authority and power to decide when/where he should publish the leaked documents he receives and when/where he should not – so, in your construct, he and his team then becomes the FINAL arbiter of leaks and whistle blowing?
     
    Is that what you are proposing?
     
    cheers

     
  10. Supratim

    Dear Sanjeev,

    You say that Wikileaks in its "current form and state" should be shut down – but, this is a very problematic concept for me.
     
    BECAUSE, you are saying that the Journalist, in this case, Assange, must make a decision about what he should and can publish or not – in effect, you are giving him the authority and power to decide when/where he should publish the leaked documents he receives and when/where he should not – so, in your construct, he and his team then becomes the FINAL arbiter of leaks and whistle blowing?
     
    Is that what you are proposing?
     
    cheers

     
  11. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Supratim

    The ultimate responsibility in this case belongs to the US government for having weak systems that allowed the leak. Many such leakages presumably are part of regular espionage across nations. That’s what spies exist for. Most such information is automatically released for public consumption 30 years after the events to allow historians to get a better sense about what is happening.

    Having said that there is no license to publish ALL material that one comes across as a journalist. What if a journalist is given the credit card numbers of 1 million people. Is that legitimate to be published? What about vital defence secrets? Is that legitimate? And so on…

    It is customary for journalists to exercise great discretion while publishing things to ensure that things that can compromise the lives of people and security of the entire nation (including its CURRENT relationships) are not published.

    Given this lack of basic understanding of the role of a journalist that Assange has displayed, I believe that laws will now be strengthened ALL over the world to bring such journalists to account.

    I believe in a VERY STRONG press, and in a strong whistleblowing system. But I do not believe in leaking vital operational information where there is NO indication of corruption or deliberate mischief. When people (diplomats) are doing their normal duties it is VERY WRONG to compromise their work.

    Assange may well escape punishment this time, but in the future there will be no more Wikileaks IN ITS CURRENT FORM AND SHAPE (I must re-emphasise that!).

    Irresponsible people lead to more regulation and reduction of liberty. Assange’s actions will reduce journalistic liberty all over the world. I have no problem with that. When the concept of responsibility is DIVORCED completely from liberty, then that person or set of persons is no longer fit to be left free, and must be regulated.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Supratim

    The ultimate responsibility in this case belongs to the US government for having weak systems that allowed the leak. Many such leakages presumably are part of regular espionage across nations. That’s what spies exist for. Most such information is automatically released for public consumption 30 years after the events to allow historians to get a better sense about what is happening.

    Having said that there is no license to publish ALL material that one comes across as a journalist. What if a journalist is given the credit card numbers of 1 million people. Is that legitimate to be published? What about vital defence secrets? Is that legitimate? And so on…

    It is customary for journalists to exercise great discretion while publishing things to ensure that things that can compromise the lives of people and security of the entire nation (including its CURRENT relationships) are not published.

    Given this lack of basic understanding of the role of a journalist that Assange has displayed, I believe that laws will now be strengthened ALL over the world to bring such journalists to account.

    I believe in a VERY STRONG press, and in a strong whistleblowing system. But I do not believe in leaking vital operational information where there is NO indication of corruption or deliberate mischief. When people (diplomats) are doing their normal duties it is VERY WRONG to compromise their work.

    Assange may well escape punishment this time, but in the future there will be no more Wikileaks IN ITS CURRENT FORM AND SHAPE (I must re-emphasise that!).

    Irresponsible people lead to more regulation and reduction of liberty. Assange’s actions will reduce journalistic liberty all over the world. I have no problem with that. When the concept of responsibility is DIVORCED completely from liberty, then that person or set of persons is no longer fit to be left free, and must be regulated.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  13. Supratim

    Dear Sanjeev,
     
    1. Assange and his Wikileaks team has, indeed, exercised a lot of caution and oversight – they went to the extent of even getting journalists/editors from NYT and Guardian to vet some of the material. Why are you ignoring this point – that respected print media journalists also backed the release.
     
    2. I am unable to understand the line that you are drawing – what is operational procedure and what is whistleblowing? If the operational procedures reveal malafides, is it okay then to reveal those?
     
    3. Vital defence secrets is a strawman. Spies are retained and paid essentially to get vital defence secrets – they try to do it in secret, without the target knowing. If this is okay, then how can revealing them in public, with the concomitant defensive action by the affected government, be any worse???? Ditto for the credit card argument – if the numbers are compromised, then I would want them immediately in public, with previous info to the issuers, so that the cards can be immediately blocked.
     
    I don't think WikiLeaks will be changed – the genie is out of the bottle – and it will remain. Even if the current one is shutdown, a new, similar one will emerge. This is the reality of the new connected world. BTW, "friends of WikiLeaks" took down the Visa website for more than 4 hours, I believe!
    cheers
     
    supratim

     
  14. Supratim

    Dear Sanjeev,
     
    1. Assange and his Wikileaks team has, indeed, exercised a lot of caution and oversight – they went to the extent of even getting journalists/editors from NYT and Guardian to vet some of the material. Why are you ignoring this point – that respected print media journalists also backed the release.
     
    2. I am unable to understand the line that you are drawing – what is operational procedure and what is whistleblowing? If the operational procedures reveal malafides, is it okay then to reveal those?
     
    3. Vital defence secrets is a strawman. Spies are retained and paid essentially to get vital defence secrets – they try to do it in secret, without the target knowing. If this is okay, then how can revealing them in public, with the concomitant defensive action by the affected government, be any worse???? Ditto for the credit card argument – if the numbers are compromised, then I would want them immediately in public, with previous info to the issuers, so that the cards can be immediately blocked.
     
    I don't think WikiLeaks will be changed – the genie is out of the bottle – and it will remain. Even if the current one is shutdown, a new, similar one will emerge. This is the reality of the new connected world. BTW, "friends of WikiLeaks" took down the Visa website for more than 4 hours, I believe!
    cheers
     
    supratim

     
  15. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Supratim

    When a person occupies any role that affects society, be it a journalist or politician, there are certain judgement calls involved.

    You are finding it hard to distinguish the fine line that I refer to. I guess that’s the whole debate about freedom of expression – where one draws the line. So what you and I think won’t resolve this issue for ever.

    But to clarify to the extent I can,

    a) Operational matters that disclose CORRUPTION, MISCHIEF AND CRIME are 100% legitimate. I’ve already said that many times in some form or shape.

    b) “Vital defence secrets is a strawman”. I differ from you (and Atanu Dey and many others!) on this. Information is power in the field of defence and espionage. I won’t go into detail, but even the most trivial experience of working in senior roles in government (e.g. security of India’s Prime Minister which I’ve worked on, apart from security of other VIPs, but also security of the people – including working with the police to secretly ambush terrorists and if necessary get them killed) will lead you to conclude that operational information CANNOT and should not be leaked. It can seriously harm the public interest. I do suggest you study this subject a bit more carefully and you will come to the same conclusion.

    On the other hand if you continue to be so relaxed about this issue then please tell me what is your position on transparency. Do you want TOTAL transparency? If so why? Is there NO line on transparency? What are its advantages and disadvantages?

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  16. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Supratim

    When a person occupies any role that affects society, be it a journalist or politician, there are certain judgement calls involved.

    You are finding it hard to distinguish the fine line that I refer to. I guess that’s the whole debate about freedom of expression – where one draws the line. So what you and I think won’t resolve this issue for ever.

    But to clarify to the extent I can,

    a) Operational matters that disclose CORRUPTION, MISCHIEF AND CRIME are 100% legitimate. I’ve already said that many times in some form or shape.

    b) “Vital defence secrets is a strawman”. I differ from you (and Atanu Dey and many others!) on this. Information is power in the field of defence and espionage. I won’t go into detail, but even the most trivial experience of working in senior roles in government (e.g. security of India’s Prime Minister which I’ve worked on, apart from security of other VIPs, but also security of the people – including working with the police to secretly ambush terrorists and if necessary get them killed) will lead you to conclude that operational information CANNOT and should not be leaked. It can seriously harm the public interest. I do suggest you study this subject a bit more carefully and you will come to the same conclusion.

    On the other hand if you continue to be so relaxed about this issue then please tell me what is your position on transparency. Do you want TOTAL transparency? If so why? Is there NO line on transparency? What are its advantages and disadvantages?

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     

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