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.”

Strauss, statism, secrecy, leaks, and public good

The New Republic is running an article by Mark Lilla titled “Reading Strauss in Beijing,” in which the author discusses the popularity of the writings of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt among intellectuals in Beijing and throughout China. He also mentions Strauss’ influence on American neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

The article made me think about utilitarianism and the first paragraph of my previous entry: “The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them have any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.”

I’ll quote a few pieces of Lilla’s article that stood out (bold emphasis mine) and then his last three paragraphs:

…everyone I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agrees that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one—a state that follows the rule of law, is less capricious, can control local corruption, and can perform and carry out long-term planning. Their disagreements all seem to be about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and how its newfound power should be exercised in international affairs.

[Chinese conservatives’] reading of history convinces them that China’s enduring challenges have always been to maintain territorial unity, keep social peace, and defend national interests against other states.

In agreement with Schmitt, they dismiss the “the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals” and see “the most defining characteristic” of humans as “the ability to distinguish friend and adversary.

Schmitt’s conclusion—that, given the naturally adversarial nature of politics, we would all be better off with a system of geographical spheres of influence dominated by a few great powers—sits particularly well with many of the young Chinese I met.

Schmitt’s political doctrine is brutal modern statism, which poses some problems in China. Though he was a jurist with a lot to say about constitutions and the rule of law, nothing in his thinking recognizes natural limits to state authority or even explains the aims of the state beyond keeping itself together and besting its adversaries. The Chinese tradition of political thought that begins with Confucius, though in a way statist, is altogether different: Its aim is to build a just social hierarchy where every person has a station and is bound to others by clear obligations, including the ruler, who is there to serve. Central to the functioning of such a state are the “gentlemen” (or “gentry” in some Confucius translations), men of character and conscience trained to serve the ruler by making him a better one—more rational and concerned with the people’s good.

Enter Leo Strauss, again. The most controversial aspect of Strauss’s thought in the United States over the past decade, given the role some of his devotees played in concocting the latest Iraq war, is what he had to say about the “gentleman.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’t—which is why the education of gentlemen is difficult in democratic societies and may need to take place in secret. Much was made of this gentlemanly idea in Straussian circles after his death, and as young Straussians became part of the Republican foreign policy apparat, beginning in the Reagan administration, many began seeing themselves as members of an enlightened class guiding America through the “crisis of the West.” (This episode still awaits its satirist.) In this sense there was indeed a connection between Straussianism and the Iraq war.

But for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. None of them seemed particularly eager to join the Party, which they said co-opted even the most independent thinkers. For the moment, they seem content to study ancient languages, get their Ph.D.s, and take teaching jobs where they evidently hope to produce philosophers and gentlemen. They are not in a hurry. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

A nice companion to this article is one written by Jim Lobe for Alternet in May 2003 about the influence of Strauss on the neoconservatives who orchestrated the US invasion of Iraq. Again, I quote a some key pieces (my emphasis in bold):

[Neocons Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt (not to be confused with Carl
Schmitt)] argued that Strauss’s idea of hidden meaning, “alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.”

While professing deep respect for American democracy, Strauss believed that societies should be hierarchical – divided between an elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. But unlike fellow elitists like Plato, he was less concerned with the moral character of these leaders. According to Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of Calgary, Strauss believed that “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”

This dichotomy requires “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled, according to Drury. Robert Locke, another Strauss analyst says, “The people are told what they need to know and no more.” While the elite few are capable of absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss thought, the masses could not cope. If exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy, according to Drury, author of ‘Leo Strauss and the American Right’ (St. Martin’s 1999).

According to Drury, Strauss had a “huge contempt” for secular democracy. Nazism, he believed, was a nihilistic reaction to the irreligious and liberal nature of the Weimar Republic. … Strauss viewed religion as absolutely essential in order to impose moral law on the masses who otherwise would be out of control. … “Secular society in their view is the worst possible thing,” Drury says, because it leads to individualism, liberalism, and relativism, precisely those traits that may promote dissent that in turn could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats.

Like Thomas Hobbes, Strauss believed that the inherently aggressive nature of human beings could only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic state. “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” he once wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

Not surprisingly, Strauss’ attitude toward foreign policy was distinctly Machiavellian. “Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat,” Drury wrote in her book. “Following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured (emphases added).”

“Perpetual war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in,” says Drury.

Strauss’ neoconservative students see foreign policy as a means to fulfill a “national destiny” – as Irving Kristol defined it already in 1983 – that goes far beyond the narrow confines of a “myopic national security.”

As to what a Straussian world order might look like, the analogy was best captured by the philosopher himself in one of his – and student Allen Bloom’s – many allusions to Gulliver’s Travels. In Drury’s words, “When Lilliput was on fire, Gulliver urinated over the city, including the palace. In so doing, he saved all of Lilliput from catastrophe, but the Lilliputians were outraged and appalled by such a show of disrespect.”

The image encapsulates the neoconservative vision of the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world – as well as their relationship as a ruling elite with the masses. “They really have no use for liberalism and democracy, but they’re conquering the world in the name of liberalism and democracy,” Drury says.

That last statement makes for a nice segue to Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. I have read and heard quite a few comments about the published US State Department cables along the lines of: “the US diplomatic corps comes off looking very professional, competent, reasonable, decent, etc.” My first impression was similar. But after reading more and more of the cables, and starting to read more carefully rather than just skimming for the juicy bits, I noticed something contrary: there is a near total absence of authentic regard for the public good. Plenty of cables have portions that give the impression that the individual author and the State Department as a whole are interested in promoting the public good. But each time I have read a cable that contained signs of an interest in promoting the public good, it always looked by the end of the cable like a handy way to obscure and achieve a higher goal: increasing leverage for the US state against other states.

And even if we set aside the ideal of equality and wanting the best for all people, there is an important distinction to be made between improving the lot of the US and improving the lot of the citizens and residents of the US. Strengthening the state almost always comes at the expense of the people over whom the state claims jurisdiction. Yes, the people get incidental benefits from a stronger state, e.g., people feel safer when the state is working to prevent terrorist attacks. But an individual resorts to terrorism against a state typically when that state has encroached on the individual or his or her kith and kin in some way and when the individual cannot find restitution and remedy through existing political channels. And the population that the state works to protect from terrorism probably gives up more than what they would lose in the event of periodically successful terrorist attacks. After all:

If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.” (Ecclesiastes 5:7–8)

But I digress. Returning to Jim Lobe’s article, it was meant as an indictment of American neoconservatives’ devotion to sinister elements of a Straussian mindset. But I think that the cables leaked, allegedly by Bradley Manning, and published so far show that this mindset is rampant throughout the US State Department. It might be disappointing but unsurprising to find evidence of the prevalence of this view in, for example, the military and intelligence branches. But I think that there is a widespread perception that the US State Department is a component of the American state, perhaps the last component, in which classical liberalism can still be found. Of course, it has always contained the likes of Richard Holbrooke and his ilk. But I am struck by the absence of classical liberalism in the cables I have read.

I don’t want to overestimate the importance of Strauss. I don’t imagine that America’s state apparatus is full of people who have studied and subscribe explicitly to the ideas of Strauss. But I do assert that his utilitarian notions of statism; rule by aristocracy; and the political virtues of secrecy, deception, and contrived conflict seem to be ingrained deeply in the institutions of power and the people who populate them — in the US and in the PRC, and probably just about everywhere else.

Constituted authority everywhere seems to be uniting toward an absolute refusal to countenance genuine dissent, as opposed to trivial quarrels within narrow bounds. Constituted authority has never been quite magnanimous about dissent. But there was an era of classical liberalism, which, as mentioned in Lobe’s article, is associated with individualism and dissent, which utilitarians assume “could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats.”

The era of classical liberalism, as Lilla remarked, seems to be over. He attributes this in part to “political Islamism and Western responses to it.” The implication is that many people in the Western liberal democracies lack the courage of their professed liberal convictions. Are some things worth dying for? Some say yes, but it seems that far more say no.

In my previous post, I tried to frame that division in terms of utilitarian vs. ethical. I stand by that, but it is overly broad. A more specific framing is Strauss’ perception that the masses are unable to cope with classical liberalism’s presumed agreement to suspend belief in absolute moral truth when engaging in politics with people whose conception of moral truth may differ from our own. In other words, we identify friends, synchronize with them, crown a king, and then — with an undying “loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively” — set our collective face like flint against everyone else. Everything becomes a familiar struggle of us vs. them in which the masses wish “to be told what they need to know and no more,” and the ruling elite are pleased to oblige. But, as Emiliano Zapata said, “Ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny.”

Thus, we have not only the ruling elite globally united against Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, but a large swathe of the public as well. I quoted Nietzsche in my previous entry: “A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’ It is a lie!” Yes, it is a lie. But after the call comes the response: “We, the people, are the state.” And who dissents incurs the wrath of the state and the masses.