Opinion: Contemplating Wikileaks

Published January 11, 2011

There’s an interesting interview with Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière in Der Spiegel this week about Wikileaks and that organization’s release of 250,000 of the American government’s secret diplomatic cables. In it, Maiziere says,

          “I have my doubts, though, about total transparency being a basic human right. Governments also have to be able to communicate confidentially. Confidentiality and transparency are not mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin… journalists would not argue on the basis of political theory that there should be no more government secrets whatsoever. That is not even what Spiegel advocates—but WikiLeaks does, and that is wrong.”

Stemming from the discussion of transparency vs. efficacy of government (especially, I suppose, in regards to matters of security) this gets me thinking of about absolutist principles vs. pragmatic compromise—the thing about the perfect being the enemy of the good. Is Wikileaks wrong? Because, really, I would like to argue that there should be no more government secrets whatsoever. A world wherein if that were the case seems like it would be a better world than the one we live in today. But I guess, I’d actually prefer a world where there were no need for countries at all, no need for governments. If all human beings were all perfectly ethical creatures who agreed about the right way to behave and always lived up those shared beliefs, we wouldn’t need to governed at all. That would be better!

But the “should” part is tricky. Because we don’t live in a world like the one I’d prefer. We live in the real world, that happens to divided up into countries, and governments do important stuff for people. Like stopping my neighbor who is bigger than I am from clubbing me over the head and stealing my food or my wife.

And I accept that in the real world, governments do need to sometimes keep secrets from each other and from their citizens in order to do their jobs effectively. A necessary evil. Would it be a better world if there were no separate countries, and a single planetary government was in charge of everything. Sometimes I think yes. I like the idea of the United Nations and international law. But again: that would work better if we could totally trust such a government to act in the interests of all the world’s people. And since that government must be made up of human beings, and not super-friendly infallible robots, maybe it’s better to decentralize power to a certain extent, if only to provide a system of checks and balances.

So is defending an absolute principle, any absolute principle, wrong because we don’t live in an absolute world? (Despite what all those vodka ads at the bus stops would have you believe.) Maybe so. Maybe striving for perfect, when the best we’re ever going to realistically get is “good,” can do us harm. At the very least, it can waste time. I can certainly understand people whose job it is to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people thinking this way. There’s often not enough time or resources to go for the perfect. (President Obama’s recent compromise on the tax cut comes to mind.)  

But might there be some good that comes out of the striving for the perfect? Or of at least operating under such a guiding principle, so as to hold people in power accountable for their actions? Wikileaks, in openly stating that they will expose any government secret they find, will at the very least make governments more careful and judicious about when and how they engage in secrecy—even the secrecy we might agree is a necessary evil. Maybe Wikileaks helps assure that secrecy will occur only when it is most necessary. Or at least, more necessary. This is a type of real-world systems of checks-and-balances, too.

 It takes all kinds. 

Written by Dave Bry

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