Sep 1, 2010

You'll become like a moron

Journalists who are doing their job are required, semi-regularly, to make an argument against governments' rights to keep secrets. Why should public information be public? Why should people know what's going on?

The arguments I've heard made generally fall into two categories: the public's right to know, and the nature of democracy.

I agree with both of those arguments, but have often found them tactically lacking. The public sometimes wants to waive their right and just give the authorities control. And one who is not convinced that a free society requires a free press and free information will not likely be convinced by Jefferson annecdotes. Either you believe it or you don't.

It's interesting, then, that Daniel Ellsberg, the country's greatest leaker of information and the only real precedent to the current phenomena of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, made a very different argument about the problem of government secrets. He told Henry Kissinger:
It will be very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have clearance. Because you're thinking as listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?' .... You'll become something like a moron ... incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have.
Rick Perlstein characterizes this as an argument about the narcotic effects of secrets, but really it's more of an argument that keeping secrets necessarily leads to what has been called "epistemic closure." The idea is that keeping secrets locks goverments into their own ignorance -- it makes them morons, and it's bad for the governments' themselves.

Obviously the argument didn't persuade Kissinger. Maybe it's no more effective than the usual two arguments. But there's a stark truth to the claim Ellsberg made that's worth remembering when those who struggle to free information are cast as the enemies of goverment.