Transparency, secrecy, and privacy

Views about when transparency is appropriate vs. inappropriate and necessary vs. optional diverge greatly in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many people seem to fail to distinguish between secrecy and privacy. I think this has to do with a habit of making little or no distinction between the collective and the individual. In the U.S. context, I’m tempted to blame this largely on the invention of “corporate personhood,” a concept that seems to have entered the legal realm in the late 19th century in cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889).

I’ll sketch a few thoughts on transparency, secrecy, and privacy here, and perhaps someone can correct me on any points of misapprehension that I may have.

First, I think that secrecy entails an intent to deceive to gain an undeserved benefit or to avoid a deserved injury. That is, it is an exertion of power over the rights and liberties of others. Privacy involves keeping harmless personal acts out of public view for any number of reasons that don’t involve injurious deception or selfish ambition.

Second, secrecy and transparency both carry advantages and disadvantages in interpersonal and intergroup relations.

Secrecy has the short-term advantage of allowing those who use it to gain leverage through deception. The disadvantage is that it provokes and perpetually increases distrust and enmity from those who lose leverage.

Transparency has the short-term disadvantage of making those who use it vulnerable to manipulation and fraud at the hands of the secretive. Transparency has the long-term advantage of fostering trust and cooperation.

Secrecy’s strength develops quickly but is brittle. When secretive groups form, they typically end up exploiting non-members. But secretive groups are inevitably destroyed by their secrecy. Lies have to be covered by other lies, and deception transforms eventually from a useful tool into a crippling web of contradictions and tensions that cannot be undone through any means other than destruction.

It should be obvious that this has nothing in common with privacy, and there is no reason to think that private individuals are destroyed by their privacy.

I don’t want to know more about you than is appropriate for the nature of our relationship and the level of trust developed between us through interaction. If you and I are strangers or are only acquainted remotely, then I only need to know about those actions of yours that affect me. It is your right to decide whether to inform me of any of your other actions. I have no right to demand knowledge of the things you do that have no effect on me, and vice versa.

But if I start hiding from you my activities that do affect you, perhaps without your perceiving the effects for a period, than I lose my right to expect privacy in that area, and you have a right to monitor my actions in that area.

The fundamental principle is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.

But it should also be clear that a person only has privacy in regard to his or her actions as an individual. A person acting in a capacity as agent or representative of an organization has no right to privacy. Everyone’s actions on behalf of institutions are monitored by those institutions. But as I said, legal fictions aside, institutions are not persons and have no right to privacy. By definition, the acts of institutions affect more than one person and thus must be either transparent or secretive; they cannot be private.

I’ll close with three quotes. First, Daniel Webster:

“This era is distinguished by free representative governments, by entire religious liberty, by improved systems of national intercourse, by a newly awakened and unconquerable spirit of free inquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge through the community. [We are] inseparably connected, fast bound up, in fortune and by fate, with these great interests. If they fall, we fall with them; if they stand, it will be because we have maintained them. Let us contemplate, then, this connection, which binds the prosperity of others to our own; and let us manfully discharge all the duties which it imposes.”

Second, Jeremy Bentham:

“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.”

Finally, Abraham Lincoln:

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

Plutocracy

Plutocracy: government by the wealthy; the rule or dominion of wealth or of the rich

Oligarchy: government by the few; a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also: a group exercising such control

Whatever else may be true of civil governments, they are primarily systems of depredation, capture, piracy, thuggery, gangsterism, racketeering, etc. But the degree to which they fleece the societies they lord over varies widely. Some are never far from provoking the population to revolt. Others are restrained enough to be tolerated by all but a small part of the population — and even lauded by a large part — for a long time.

But greed eventually leads every regime to provoke open revolt. The question of whether a revolt is bloody or bloodless depends mostly on the government. Democracy’s chief, perhaps lone, credit is that it gives wider berth than any other form of government to the possibility of bloodless, rather than bloody, revolution.

Bill Moyers spoke, as part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, on 29 October 2010 at Boston University about the slide in the US back toward the plutocracy of the Gilded Age. The universal tendency of corporate and political power to merge gets attention periodically in public discourse. Rather than try to construct my own overview of the problem, I leave you to read or watch Moyers’ speech.

One of the specifics that Moyers discusses is efforts by the likes of the Koch brothers and Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence, to defeat health care reform. Dovetailing nicely with this is a Bloomberg article about the US Chamber of Commerce’s role in delivering the US into plutocracy. Of course, that’s not what the Bloomberg piece is supposed to be about. It’s about the money ($86.2 million) that health insurers gave AmCham to oppose health care reform.

It’s a nice piece of journalism that illustrates the lengths to which the health insurers went to oppose health care reform and the lengths to which they went to keep the extent of their opposition hidden. It also illustrates AmCham’s role as a money-launderer for corporations that want to influence the political process anonymously.

In the words of Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current head of the political activity practice at a law firm in Washington, DC, “They [the health insurers] clearly thought the Chamber would be a more credible source of information and advertising on health-care reform, and it would appear less self-serving if a broader business group made arguments against it than if the insurers did it.”

Bloomberg focuses on the fact that the insurers were negotiating with legislators in drafting what became the Affordable Care Act with a professed interest in seeing reform done well while simultaneously and anonymously attacking the reform effort wholesale. They were able to exert influence from the outside without losing the credibility needed to influence the process from the inside.

This gets to the issue of disclosure of and restrictions on lobbying methods and the funding of electioneering activities and the rest of the “soft” corruption that tips a democracy into a plutocracy. Moyers closes his speech by exhorting us to organize to pass legislation that would, among other things, nullify the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I’m all for that, and I say let’s go further and overturn the legal fiction — established by cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889) — that property (e.g., a corporation) is a person (which is the inverse of the equally absurd and now discarded legal fiction that a person is property).

However, I don’t believe that such efforts, even if successful, will accomplish a lot. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party both represent the wealthy. The political system is run for the benefit of the top 10% of income earners, and the trick of conservative consolidation is to use some of the resources of this elite 10% to make certain that the next 40% of income earners fear the bottom 50% more than they resent the top 10%. Rhetoric aside, the Democratic Party is conservative in the literal sense that they wish to maintain the bias in favor of the wealthy that is inherent to the current political economy.

There have been periods when the political economy was healthier than it is now, and this fact makes it seem reasonable to expect that significant improvements can be made now, that there is hope for improvement. After all, democracy is a strictly utilitarian system. It is not itself a reasonable object of faith or hope, but it seems to allow room for some kind of faith or hope for progress.

However, I think this is a deception. Societies under democratic systems of government have had ups and downs in the past, but I think there is no longer any good reason to expect or even hope for significant periods of upward momentum toward justice, peace, prosperity, or whatever else may seem like a worthy goal.

The reason has to do with the nature of the technological society, a concept described by Jacques Ellul in a book of that name. I recently read another book by Ellul that addresses propaganda as a particular class of technique in the nexus of techniques composing the technological society: Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965). I want to quote a passage (translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner) from section 3, “Propaganda and Grouping,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects”:

“One can say that propaganda almost inevitably leads to a two-party system. Not only would it be very difficult for several parties to be rich enough to support such expensive campaigns of propaganda, but also propaganda tends to schematize public opinion. Where there is propaganda, we find fewer and fewer nuances and refinements of detail or doctrine. Rather, opinions are more incisive; there is only black and white, yes and no. Such a state of public opinion leads directly to a two-party system and the disappearance of a multi-party system.

“The effects of propaganda can also be clearly seen in view of what Duverger calls the party with the majority mandate and the party without that mandate The party with the majority mandate, which ordinarily should command an absolute majority in parliament, is normally the one that has been created by propaganda. Propaganda’s principal trumps then slip out of the hands of the other parties. All the latter can do then is to make demagogic propaganda, i.e., a false propaganda that is purely artificial, considering what we have said about the relationship between propaganda and reality. (In other words, the party out of power must pick an artificial issue.)

“In that case we find ourselves faced with two completely contradictory propagandas. On one side is a propaganda powerful in media and techniques, but limited in its ends and modes of expression, a propaganda strictly integrated into a given social group, conformist and statist. On the other is a propaganda weak in regard to media and techniques, but excessive in its ends and expressions, a propaganda aimed against the existing order, against the State, against prevailing group standards.

“But one must never forget that the party with the majority mandate, which adjusts its propaganda to that mandate and even uses the mandate as a propaganda aim, is nevertheless also the creation of propaganda, which hands it that mandate in a given setting and for a long period of time.

“Finally, a last word on the financial problems and their implications: it is improbable that the contributions alone would enable a party to pay for the increasingly expensive propaganda media. The parties are therefore forced to look for aid either to capitalists — and thus indenture themselves to a financial oligarchy — or to a government (national or foreign). In the second case, the State comes close to appropriating the instruments. The State then lends them to those who ask for them, which is very democratic, and thus permits secondary parties to live; but this leads to an unstable situation, as I said earlier, and the State is then increasingly forced to exercise censorship over what is being said by means of these instruments. This censorship will be increasingly rigorous as the State itself is forced to make more propaganda.

“This leads us to examine the hypothesis of a State that ceases to be neutral in the ideological domain and assumes a doctrine or ideology of its own. At that moment, propaganda by the State is imposed on all parties. To be sure, we are still dealing with propaganda. We have seen in past decades with regard to all “state religions” that power must first be used to shape public opinion, without which they could not operate. Thus, at the beginnings of the Nazi State, or of popular democracies, a certain competition continued between the propaganda of the State and that of the parties out of power. But in such competition the State necessarily emerges victorious; it increasingly denies the use of the mass media of communication to the opposition parties; it works on public opinion until the moment arrives when it can simply suppress opposition parties without fear. But the State can work on public opinion only through the intermediary of a party. This is another effect of propaganda. One could conceive of a State that would suppress all parties and live by itself: that was the classic pattern of dictatorship. However, that is no longer possible.

“Once public opinion has been aroused and altered to political problems, it must be taken into consideration. The propaganda mechanism of the State cannot function as an administrative unit; it cannot have reality or efficiency except through the media of the State party. It is impossible to imagine that a modern State could command acceptance without working through a party establishing contact between those who govern and public opinion. The party’s fundamental role is to make propaganda for the government, i.e., the propaganda that the government wishes to e made. In one sense, incidentally, we find here the image of a party in its purest state, for ultimately every party is a propaganda machine. But this is much more hidden in other systems in which there still can be nuances and discussions; in dictatorships, the party no longer serves any ideological or political function, no longer expresses social interests, and so on. It is an organ designed to tame and train public opinion, and exists solely because of the State’s need. As soon as that need diminishes, the role and prestige of the party also diminish This happened in Nazi Germany in 1938 (after the concentration of all powers in the Fuhrer’s hands), and in the Soviet Union after the purges of 1936. But as soon as propaganda again becomes important the party resumes its role.

“Propaganda very clearly gives direction to the life of political parties imposes certain forms and rules on them sends them down certain paths, and ends up by deciding their life or death until the regime expands to the point at which propaganda and party are totally fused.”

My view is that there is no longer a possibility of reforming the state into a more tolerable form because, although it may have taken forms in the past that were tolerable, it has now been transformed by the agglomeration of techniques, especially propaganda, to the point where meaningful reform is no longer possible. The only option I see is to withdraw all moral support from the state and minimize interactions with it. It cannot be made to serve the interests of humanity and the rest of creation.