Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Government secrecy

It is fashionable right now to see people who leak government secrets as being some sort of hero.  It is true that secrecy in government action can be subject to significant abuse.  But Eric Posner points out that transparency is not all good in a democracy:

Thus, the debate is not “democracy vs. security,” as the press has invariably framed it. It is, paradoxically, “democracy vs. democracy.” The secret ballot is the most famous illustration of the essential role that secrecy plays in a democracy. The secrecy of the ballot protects people from intimidation so they can vote sincerely, but it also enables a dishonest government to manipulate elections since people’s votes are not publicly verifiable.

Commentators always emphasize the importance of openness to democracy, forgetting that secrecy is just as essential. Often they treat secrecy as a disagreeable golem that lurks unwanted in our democracy, whose claims must be entertained but should be treated with the utmost skepticism. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, for example, celebrates Snowden (and Manning) for generating huge gains in public accountability, while discounting the government’s claims that he caused serious harms to national security by revealing methods to enemies who can henceforth evade our spies.
I think that the secret ballot is a very good example of a case where transparency could actually prove counter-productive.  The potential for intimidation in revealing the specific voting decisions of people who need to work with the next government (think of government bureaucrats or people who contract with the government) is actually pretty huge.  I also wonder if the focus on victimless crimes doesn't lead to more problems than it is worth, leading to a huge need for secrecy about matters that are usually adult decisions.

I am not sure I completely agree with the decision to go with lower levels of government transparency there is clearly a trade off here.  But I have to agree that Posner brings up a good point that there is a point where openness could actually create more problems than benefits. 

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