Saturday, August 10, 2013

Privacy, Transparency, Espionage, and Secrecy: The Assange, Manning, and Snowden Incidents / Second Interlude / Liberalism and Transparency

I have already discussed the importance of transparency in providing for what we might call public oversight in a civilization in which polity and society have evolved into separate spheres, but another word must be said on the subject, specifically with regards to liberal political-economics.

Frontispiece to Hobbes' Leviathan /
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
First, a word on liberalism.  Liberalism is a natural outcropping of realist thought, an ideological preference for favoring information derived from sensory observation, a philosophical disposition to believe in moral relativism (the more important the end, the more means become ethically justifiable), and an insistence that the ethical value of outcomes is more important to calculations than means (it isn't how you play the game, it is whether you win or lose - at least if the game is existential). In the Western tradition realism first emerged with the work of Thucydides and Aristotle and remained a critical intellectual current through most of the classical period, falling out of favor during the Medieval era but reemerging with greater vigor than ever before in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, especially thanks to the work Machiavelli and Hobbes and the emergence of modern science. Essential to this second wave of realism is the emergence of methodological individualism, that is to say an insistence that human individuals be understood as the "real" atomistic element of human societies, economies, and polities.  All human groupings are artificial and instrumental, at least to some degree, rather than natural and deterministic.

John Locke / Wikimedia Commons
Liberalism emerges from realism when political thinkers begin to critique realism as oversimplifying human intentions, human nature, and the ability of humans to reconstruct their environment using laws and institutions.  It does so in a number of ways, but a few stand out.  First, while liberalism retains individualism it redoubles it - individualism is not merely a starting point to be taken into account when constructing polities, but also metric to be used to determine whether or not the polity is making ethical choices. Secondly, while liberalism shares realism's abounding fear of anarchy it equally reviles tyranny, therefore it insists on bounding state action by establishing certain individual freedoms as "rights" (though liberals differ on whether these are inalienable or socially constructed) and by insisting the polity be institutionally designed to make it responsive to the wills, not merely the needs, of society.  Finally, and most relevantly here, liberals believe that institutions can be designed which, instead of crushing competition, as many classical realists insist on as part of their effort to avoid the perils of anarchy, instead channel the energies of competition into productive, socially beneficial processes - institutions, therefore, don't just make human society possible, for liberals, but improve the fundamental nature of human beings (at least if they are properly constructed).

[It should be noted that the typical American use of "liberal" and "conservative" is really a misnomer - liberal, as we use it, typically refers to progressive liberals, while conservative refers to conservative liberals, the key difference being that progressive liberals insist that political institutions may be used to correct immoral, inefficient, or ineconomic characteristics of society and economy while conservative liberals distrust political engineering of society and economy and prefer political institutions to reflect the naturally evolving qualities of thereof, what we might call "tradition."]

In order to achieve this liberals insist on the adoption of institutions of competition-within-rules - what we might call bounded competition.  Socially this includes freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience.  Economically this generally means some form of capitalism - free competition of consumers, free competition of employers, and free competition of markets.  Politically, of course, this refers to variant forms of democracy, usually today democratic-republicanism of either the presidential or parliamentary forms

Competition with rules.  Liberal politics are the politics of a game - a point which makes it hardly surprising that the liberal world is obsessed with sports and games to a degree that no other civilization has approached.  In every sphere liberal polities, economies, and societies allow individuals to make many, many discrete decisions that then affect political, economic, and social outcomes - we vote, we buy, we listen.

But not all decisions by individuals are considered to be of equal quality - liberals do not ignore the Greek and Roman warnings (nor those of the Renaissance and Enlightenment) to fear the mob, the emotional, uninformed, masses.  Rather, liberals insist that rational individuals, to make good choices, need simply good information - a proper education and good information about the relevant factors, issues, and metrics involved in the decision they are about to make.

Professors rarely form mobs (though when they do, woo-boy, look out).

Thus the need for transparency.  If we are to make good decisions we need good information, accurate and timely (years or decades after the fact information becomes mere trivia).  If we want to evaluate decisions of our state and decide, based upon the proper criteria (not do they play the saxophone or would they be a pleasure to fish with) we need the proper data - data on performance, data on the real disposition of domestic and global events.  Otherwise we will respond to bad data with bad decisions.  This, argues liberal theory, is an essential truth, and trust in the state, while necessary, becomes unhealthy if it stretches to such a degree that it obviates oversight of the state.

Put simply, you can have capitalism and democratic-republicanism without transparency but neither will work in its absence.

And this, friends, presents a problem.

To be continued in Part IV / Defining Secrecy and Conceptualizing Associated Problems