No More Secrets

Julian Assange seems to have fallen prey to what I call Supply-Sider's Disease, a little-known, yet surprising widespread psychiatric disorder in which people become convinced that things they very much want to do from strong moral convictions, must therefore have no downside.  It is the political equivalent of believing that frozen yogurt and smoothies are calorie-free foods.


The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

Ah.  This must be why Wikileaks has been getting so much material from the governments of China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, and why internal documents from Cargill are currently dominating their traffic.  Ooops!  That was a flash from an alternative universe where what Assange is saying isn't nonsense.  In the real world, he got a bunch of government documents because the US, in its addlepated, well meaning way, dumped all of them on a network open to 3 million people where they could be seen by a disaffected 23-year old stupid enough to either believe he could get away with this, or not understand how long the years in jail might be.

I mean, it's certainly true that closed, secretive networks become less effective--but that doesn't mean they become less effective at the things we dislike them doing.  Stalin remained exceptionally good at purges and liquidations all through World War II, and that didn't stop him from helping to win the war, and dominating half of Europe.  It's just that it took more dead Russian boys to do it, because being secretive and purge-oriented kind of hampered the efficiency of the economy, leaving them a little short of key items like guns.  But since Stalin was running a super-secretive, centrally controlled regime, that insight didn't really matter.  

Similarly, forcing the US military and the State Department to become more secretive might well hamper their effectiveness.  But it seems most likely to hamper their effectiveness at things like nation-building and community outreach, where you need a broad, decentralized effort.  I don't see why they'd be much less effective at launching drone attacks.  To be sure, the drone attacks might kill a lot more innocent civilians.  But no doubt Assange thinks this is all to the good because it heightens the contradictions or something.

It's also worth noting that the assumption that secretive organizations will necessarily be undermined by leaks is only even arguably true in a world where they can't expand their sphere of influence to control the propagation of those leaks.  It will be clear to anyone who has ever visited China that we do not live in that universe.  And of course, the US government has plenty of room to expand its power.  And what truly worries me about Wikileaks is not the immediate damage that has been done by the release of this sort of information, but the fact that the latest drop has created an enormous, nearly unanimous backlash in the United States.  

Most of the libertarians I know are ambivalent, for heaven's sake--if you can't get the libertarians united on actions that increase transparency, you've sure as hell lost the rest of the country. That's a ripe environment for new laws that reduce transparency.  Maybe we'll be less effective--but we'll also be less free.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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