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.