The Dynamic Equilibrium Theory of Government Secrecy

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Secrecy has become a fairly common topic of discussion among historians of science in the past few years. Two very different examples are a documentary film by Peter Galison and Robb Moss as well as a collection of essays on Galileo by Mario Biagioli. One reason this issue appeals to historians is that there is something paradoxical about the role of secrecy both in science and democratic society. Although usually accepted as indispensable, secrecy strikes at a putative core value of both: openness and transparency. For that reason, we might expect historians of science to take an interest in the recent spate of developments around the online anti-secrecy phenomenon Wikileaks.

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.

5 comments

in a basic sense i don't think anyone would disagree with you about this - except for maybe assange himself. if you read the way he's trying to get himself portrayed in the media (martyr), it seems like he thinks of himself as somehow doing *more* than punching holes in a veil. for him, it's about a systematic alternative to the secrecy state, one that's democratic and web-based, and it's less of a mediator between complete control and complete anarchy, and some idealized internet-state where order emerges organically from the full disclosure of informatin..

Well, yes, of course Assange might not see it that way. But the question is whether WE ought to think of Wikileaks' proper role along these lines. My suggestion is that we look at the phenomenon from a system-wide perspective, not a detail oriented one. Part of the claim, then, is that we don't worry about the actual content of what is leaked, or the motivations of the individuals facilitating the leaks. What matters are the dynamics of the system as a whole.

The obvious counterargument is that my suggestion makes for terribly inefficient policy. Why not just institute some sort of citizen oversight of government secrecy programs? Indeed, that's one of the things congress is supposed to do.

But I think there's a problem here. If we have oversight by a large sector of the population then secrets are no longer really secret. But if we put only very few people in charge of oversight (a Congressional committee, which is I believe what we have today) then you create a kind of 'insider' world in which the incentive is strong to abuse the power of secrecy.

so the systematic solution is for non-systematic outsider web-democrats to expose secrets, become marginalized, martyred, or otherwise vilified/worshiped in the short-term, and thereby spawn copy-cats who continue the outsider-anti-system system circle necessary for this to work?

Of course the standard answer in a democratic society as to how to regulate the abuse of secrecy is to elect officials who have demonstrated a track record of integrity of character that can be trusted to act in the public's best interest. This is, I believe, a non-trivial reason why character and values play such a large role in presidential elections in particular, as the power vested in the POTUS is so extreme that it demands a person of exceedingly good judgement to execute the duties and obligations of the office. Hence why a good argument can be made, given accepted American morals regarding sex, that the Lewinsky scandal wasn't much ado about nothing.

I guess it's worth saying I really (though respectfully) disagree with rmacgreg. I think perhaps this difference of opinion may be a symptom of our respective political cynicism. Let me explain:

I am not one of those people who claims not to care about the character of our elected officials. Maybe it's worth admitting here that I'm not a Republican. Still, I can see why it mattered to people that they felt like GW Bush was someone with whom you could quote unquote have a beer. I myself totally feel like Barak Obama is someone with whom I could have a reasonable conversation. I really do think these emotions matter! Obama and I don't agree on everything, but it matters to me that I do really think he basically has the right approach to politics, which is a realist and pragmatic liberalism. All of those are character traits, I think, and I agree they are things I care about.

I also care about ethics, obviously (well, I hope it's obvious anyhow). The more power you have the more your ethics matter because the more opportunity you have to do something really, really terrible! I guess the root of my cynicism, though, is that I am not sure we can ever really know much about the true ethics of our politicians (other than what they want us to know, or think). Politics has become such a stage managed affair, with handlers and focus groups and pollsters etc., etc., etc., that I have no confidence in my ability to judge whether someone really holds the values they appear to espouse.

And, perhaps more importantly, I think ultimately individuals don't matter all that much in this particular arena. As I said, I guess it's no secret I support the Obama administration in many respects, but I obviously disagree with their stance on state sanctioned secrecy. The problem is not that I don't trust President Obama as a person. I have a fair bit of faith in his character. But I also think he's caught up in a system that has it's own logic, a system whose dynamics constrain some crucial choices he has to make. So someone can have the best intentions and the most steadfast morals in the world but when push comes to shove they will have little choice but to make a (rational!) decision that I think we as democratic citizens would be better off had they not made.

As anonymous points out, this is a pretty bleak view of the world. It's kind of absurd, even. The way I've set up the system, it looks like we are basically ruled by predator / prey dynamics playing themselves out between governments and online anti-secrecy activists. Perhaps I should have called it the Lotka-Volterra Theory of Government Secrecy! As I said in my previous comment, I totally agree that the way I've set things up does not a very efficient system make. The question is if we can come up with a better one that will actually work to safeguard our interests as citizens in a democratic society? I would be happy if we can, but so far we've not managed to reach anything near the global optimum.

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