Wikileaks is Good for You and Me

Wikileaks is good for you and me. Evidently it is not good for the targeted governments. That fact lends additional weight to my claim that Wikileaks is good for you and me. Here I will try to explain why I believe that Wikileaks is good for you and me. I keep repeating “good for you and me” to underline the fact that what is good for you and me need not necessarily be good for our government, and vice versa.

There should not be an opposition between the interests of the government and citizens, especially if the government is a democratic one. But with time the interests of the government and the people diverge. It is easy to understand why this happens.

The outlines of the explanation goes like this. People are self-interested agents who tend to do things that are good for them, even at the expense of others. Add power to that basic equation and the outcome is predictable. People with power will try to increase their power as it is in their self-interest.

Governments are composed of people. Not just that, they are people with power. They necessarily have to have power to do the job they are entrusted with. Unfortunately that means that with time they will act to increase their power. This is basic human nature and while there may be a notable exception or two here and there, this is the rule. Thus governments will continue to become bigger and more powerful. Empirical evidence bears this out: governments grow monotonically.

We the people are the principals and the government is our agent. The government works for us and is there to safeguard our interest. We have only one device available to us to see that the government — more accurately the people who are entrusted by us to govern us — actually does what is in our best interests. That device is simply our vigilance. We have to know what the government is up to. We have to have a transparent government. We have to be able to know what the government is doing in our name.

Before going on, we should pause briefly to remind ourselves why exactly we need government. Society needs institutions that allow a large number of people to co-exist and function collectively. Courts are institutions that help with conflict resolution. Police forces are required to maintain law and order, and enforce property rights. The institution of a military is required to guard society against external aggression. Legislative bodies are required to maintain the set of laws — add, remove and makes changes to the set to keep it in step with changing circumstances.

Various regulatory institutions are required to ensure that other institutions don’t work against the larger public interest. For example, a regulatory body for fair trade practices is good for commerce. The variety of regulatory institutions grows with the size and complexity of the society. Society needs, for instance, financial institutions. So there has to be regulator, usually called a “central bank.”

Regulators are supposed to work for the benefit of society. To make sure that they indeed do that, we must know what the regulator is up to and why. Transparency in the workings of the regulator is absolutely essential. For example, if the telecom regulator were to conduct its business behind closed doors and claim that it is immune from public scrutiny, it would easily lead to the telecom regulators — self-interested people just like the rest of us — to game the system to their own benefit, instead of society’s benefit. We the people have to know what they are doing all the while.

The government can be considered to be a ‘super-regulator’ in the sense that it regulates the other regulatory institutions. The government is supposed to work for us. And we have a right to know what the government is doing. This cannot be overstated.

We must know — not just should know — whether the people in government are indeed doing their job. We must know if they are telling us one thing and doing another. We must know if they are declaring a war against another country so that it can benefit arms dealers. We must know that they are not secretly working with a foreign government at the detriment of the national interest.

If there is a sword of Damocles perpetually hanging over the heads of the people in government — that what they do will be immediately and not just eventually known to the people — then they will not do such things as they would do knowing that they are shielded forever behind a veil of ignorance.

The government is composed of people who work for us and it is our prerogative as principals to know what they do. We want to know what our ambassadors know because ultimately it is we who appoint them to do their jobs and we who ultimately pay their salaries.

The argument that the people who work in the government must keep secrets from us on the grounds of “national security” is specious at best. If it is alright for them to know something, it should be alright for us to know it as well.

If Pakistan is helping the Taliban to kill Americans, and if it is alright for the people in the US government to know that fact, then it is alright for the citizens of the US to know that as well. Because the people can then decide whether it is alright for the government of the US to use billions of dollars of US tax payers’ money to give to the Pakistani governments.

The principle is simple. The government knows things and that knowledge must be available to the people since they have to ultimately decide if their government is actually doing what it should be doing.

It is that certain knowledge that the people will immediately find out the truth that is the ultimate guarantor that the people in government are not in it for themselves alone.

So one may ask: should there be no secrets? Should there be no privacy? The answer is most definitely there must be secrets. What an agent of the people — a government employee — does as his or her public duty must not be secret but what he or she does in his or her private capacity must be secret.

A diplomat lies abroad for his or her country, as the witticism goes. What you do on behalf of the country is not your private business. There is no presumption of privacy in that sphere. The cables you send as a part of your job as a public servant is a public property. But what you do in the bedroom with your significant other is your private business, and people don’t have any rights to know about that.

What about commercial firms? Is it ok for people to pry out trade secrets and publicize them to the world? Most definitely not. Commercial enterprises are not in the game for public welfare. There is no compelling reason why the public should know what the secret formula for Coke is or what herbs and spices the Colonel uses in his Kentucky fried chicken. KFC does not work for the broader interests of the public, as opposed to what the government does.

The government should not be working in secrecy at home or abroad. If the people in government know that there is nothing that they do on behalf of the people will ever be a secret they will not do such things that are against the interests of the people. That is not such a difficult thing to appreciate.

The internet is generally used by people for petty reasons — video chats with one’s aunt in Australia and for porn — but some people use it for things whose impacts will be nothing but positive for human welfare. Wikileaks is a natural development in the progression of human societies.

With sufficient light on what governments are doing — especially the governments of powerful nations such as the US — it is possible to see a time when it will be impossible for governments to wage perpetual wars that only enrich the powerful.

I know it is hard to believe that Julian Assange is a world savior. But I most certainly see that the wheel he has set in motion will eventually within our lifetimes revolutionize the way governments work. It will align the interests of the people of the government with that of the citizens. It will force the government to be a government of the people and for the people.

Wikileaks is good for you and for me.

17 thoughts on “Wikileaks is Good for You and Me

  1. There is “Mr. DangerousIndian Outlaw” sitting in enemy country. Enemy country is refusing to extradite the Mr D. Outlaw. Waging war is a costly option. Covert kidnapping and bringing the outlaw back to india is feasible as there is one “Mr. Willing Spy” in the enemy camp. Hence one Mr. “PatrioticIndianIn Government” opens secret communication with Mr. W. Spy.
    Explain why you and me need to know about the communication between Mr. P Government and Mr. W. Spy immediately. It can be made common knowledge after a reasonable amount of time (say when Mr. D Outlaw has been hanged to death).
    As I commented in an earlier post of yours, I am confused regarding this issues of Wikileaks. I see both pros and cons of wikileaks. You, on other hand, are very sure that complete and immediate transparency is better. Confused very much, am I.

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  2. Once something is known to the broader citizenry of a country, it can generally be assumed that foreigners will come to know about it too, in a world as connected as it is today. Therefore, while I agree that most of what is known to the government should be known to the citizenry, I do think that there should be exceptions. Such exceptions include national security secrets that foreigners should not know about, e.g. military technology or plans, diplomatic tactics and so forth.

    That said, from whatever I have read of the recent WikiLeaks, it seems that the US citizens have a right to know what was revealed.

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  3. What an agent of the people — a government employee — does as his or her public duty must not be secret but what he or she does in his or her private capacity must be secret.

    Unfortunately in India, people follow the opposite principle. No one insists for transparency in the daily duty of our public servants, but if they’re caught with their pants down by a sting operation, TV channels will go on circulating the grainy footage, and the corresponding article will break the ‘most read’ record on TOI’s website.

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  4. Atanu,

    I have mixed feelings on the leaks from Wikileaks. On one side, it is a good check against the governments, which by the day are becoming organizations of lobbyists and special interest groups. On the other side, I feel not everything that the government does should be available for public scrutiny.

    I believe your argument on why government knowledge should be public is narrow. Both in private enterprises and public enterprises, certain things should be kept out of the people the enterprise serves. For e.g. is it ok for a bank to disclose its client information to the share holders? can a government disclose the launch code of a missile to the public?. It is difficult to draw a line between what can be disclosed and what cannot be? And even if there is a line, who draws it?

    Every government (at least the elected ones) have procedures and processes on how and what information is available for public. If citizens are unhappy with the information provided, they could change the law. Instead if they choose to find clandestine ways to get information it is not good for democracy in the long run.

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  5. Indeed. The cries I hear about how “security interests have been compromised” ring hollow. What about stupid policy decisions that have gone unchecked and have truly compromised our national security interests? Wikileaks is a small leveler.

    You must have heard the weak and flawed TSA refrain when questioning the invasiveness of their methods, and the political correctness in applying their measures to all and sundry, including small children – “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. The same argument should be used against the wikileaks cry babies. “If you have nothing shameful to hide, why fear”?

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  6. “The argument that the people who work in the government must keep secrets from us on the grounds of “national security” is specious at best. If it is alright for them to know something, it should be alright for us to know it as well.”

    Question – should our military secrets be public information? Would we all be better off if Pakistan knew where exactly we kept the bomb, how many bombs we had and the protocols for us to use them?

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  7. Very poorly reasoned post from you, Atanu, as others have already pointed out.

    For example, what if these leaks threaten to undermine the war against Islamic terrorists, or expose and imperil those who are covertly helping USA (e.g. Yemen)?

    To paraphrase your favorite person’s quote: There’s no difference between theory and practice in theory, but there’s a difference between the two in practice. Methinks you’re not realizing this difference as you hew to your idea of what a government should be ideally.

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  8. TiredProf

    Wikileaks is looking more and more like a government plant

    Could you please elaborate. Seems to be an interesting hypothesis.

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  9. @tiredprof: yes. I also think the information leak has a value add to US (acting as a vent). The other question, are the leaks causing any real threat to US interests besides embarrassments?
    ex: Is there a leak which clearly says WMD/war on Iraq is a hoax? Is there any leak which implicates/finds fault with US aggression and involvement with Pakistan? May look stray but make me wonder if wiki leaks is really a plant. 250Million leaks!! the flood of information itself disorients one trying to get a gist

    -Sriram

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  10. Pingback: The Bach
  11. Some of the arguments above are essentially setting up a straw man by citing national security issues and then throwing out the entire wikileaks benefits arguments.
    One, no one here is advocating that all our top secret things be published outright; two, the level of misuse of such secret actions is so large that ensuring proper oversight is much more important than the cost of a few leaks.

    I could argue that all mandatory audits & disclosures slow down my company and so I should be allowed to keep my accounts secret for the benefit of all shareholders.

    Shall I send you my share prospectus ?

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