The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Snowden, Manning and the role of government secrecy

I’ve stayed out of the Manning and Snowden imbroglio because most of what needs to be said is being said by other people.

However there is one issue that is not being made clear enough, but which under-girds all the arguments about their acts: the role of government.

Think of there as being two main ways to view government:

1) Government exists to rule over the people.  The people may have some say in who their rulers are, but once those rulers exist, they make the rules and the people obey.  Government in this view is an independent entity to whom subjects owe their obedience.  Government knows best, and we should do what government tells us to.

2) Government is an instrument acting on behalf of the people. Its position is similar to being a trustee—it is a relationship in which the public gives the government certain powers and resources, and expects the government to act on behalf of the people.  Government, in this view, is a solution to the collective action problem.  How do we act together for the benefit of everyone?

If we are ruled by government, we do not have a defacto right to know what government is doing.  Government knows best, we don’t have all the information, and we should go about our lives, obeying the laws and those who are in positions of power over us.

Imagine that you have a trustee, whom you have given money and the right to make rules to, in order that they might take care of certain of your affairs.  In order to be sure that they are taking care of your affairs, and not their own, or someone else’s who once the money and power is in their hands, is bribing or browbeating them, you must know what actions they are taking.

Transparency, in a democratic system, is predicated on the idea that citizens are the ultimate repository of legitimacy and that citizens have a responsibility and a right to know what is being done on their behalf.  Citizens cannot execute their responsibilities, including voting, volunteering, running for office and supporting primary candidates, if they do not know what government is actually doing.

Thus, in a democracy, the government must be transparent on virtually everything.  Short of actual military secrets, of which there are startlingly few (major deployments are obvious, and often announced), and very specific details like the actual identity of spies, plus personal information not relevant to job performance of government employees, there is almost nothing the government does which should not be available to the public.

Government works for the population. It is the servant of the people.  You cannot supervise your employee, you cannot discipline or fire or even properly reward your employee, if you do not know what your employee is doing with your money and the power you have given your employee.

It is now necessary to talk about the relation of citizens to the government.  The government works for citizens, citizens do not work for the government.  It is not a symmetrical relationship.  Because government works for the people, the people have the right to know what the government does.  Because the people, with the exception of some officials, do not exist to serve the needs of the government, the government does not have a right to know what the people are doing.  Transparency is required by the government, so that its masters, the people, can supervise it.  Again, transparency is not required of the people, except in very specific ways (for example, how much money they made) because they are not in a trustee relationship with the government: it is not their duty to act on behalf of the government.

Every time someone says, “well, if Snowden/Assange/Greenwald/Welsh/ believes in transparency, they should release on their personal emails”, it is a misunderstanding of the relationship between government and the people.  Individuals do not owe government transparency, government owes people transparency because government works for people and has power and money only because it is granted that power by the People.

Now, you can use this argument in support of spying on all the people.  The argument is as follows: “the people have given us the responsibility to protect them, and we believe the only way to protect them is to know everything they do online and as much of what they do offline as possible.  They have given us that grant of authority, and we are using it.”

I am willing to admit that the people could give their government that grant of authority. However, to do so they would have to know that that is what was being done and most people did not know that pre-Snowden.  There would also have to be an election in which “spy on everyone” was the main issue, and there was a party to vote for which was against it.  And, prima-facie, one would expect to at least see polls which showed that citizens wanted to be spied on all the time.

I believe that if such a grant was made, effective democracy would still end (if it hasn’t in many Western countries already).  Once people know they are being spied on 24/7 they change how they behave, and those who have access to that information can easily manipulate them, both overtly through blackmail and covertly by knowing what makes them tick (the exact contents of everything you search online, every email you send, every text you send and every phone call you make, plus in many cities the possibility of a fair bit of tracking of where you go physically each day). Information, in this case, is power.  Once they know how you tick, it’s not hard to figure out how to present information and incentives in such a way that you do what they want.

In this case government becomes the master, the people the servants.  To give full, free democratic consent for a surveillance society, is to sign the death warrant to the type of democracy which is “for the people, by the people”.  Something may remain, it may have elections, it may be called democracy and have all the forms, but it will not be democracy in the essentials.  There are other ways to lose effective democracy, like allowing money to buy the system, of course, and in some countries it appears that has occurred, but the surveillance state is additive (or perhaps multiplicative.)

In the Gilded Age, it was widely recognized that the “Trusts” (that Ages equivalent of our great megacorporations) controlled government. Eventually Americans were able to undo that.  But conditions were different then, there was no surveillance society, and there was still a very vibrant culture of civic association.

If we believe that government serves the people, then we must be way of any government that either doesn’t wish to tell the people what it is doing on their behalf, or which believes it has a right to know everything its people do.

The final argument is the safety argument, the “we need a surveillance society to be safe from bad men.”  I don’t believe this argument, and others have dealt with it, so for the time being, I will simply end with words from Benjamin Franklin:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

And though Franklin didn’t say it, I agree that those who who believe that those give up liberty for safety will lose both liberty and safety—and deserve neither.


People can believe pretty much anything


Employment and Economic situation in a nutshell


  1. Gaianne

    Well said. Thank you!


  2. Right on, Ian. About as clear-headed and comprehensive as it gets.

  3. Greg T

    Where the people fear government, there is tyranny. Where the government fears the people, there is democracy.

  4. Alcuin

    “As came to light in the revelations in the late 1980s concerning the intertwined scandals of Iran-Contra and the transnational Bank of Credit and Commerce International, national security is a code employed frequently to disguise lucrative licenses granted by government to favoured contractors empowered to murder and steal with impunity (my emphasis)”

    From an article on the Wild Culture website, by Anthony Hall, professor of globalization studies at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta.

  5. Ian

    This is just wonderful and so right in its analysis of the relationship of people and their government.

    I am running for City Council in NY. So We have had many forums and dozens of questionnaires. The vast majority bring up the Stop and Frisk. Which is a practice of the Bloomberg administration and the NY Police Dept, as a matter public policy, to stop those, mostly young men of color, in order “fight crime”. Many have said this policy should be abandoned or amended. I of course think so too.

    When I am asked I make the argument you are making here. I then say, ” without justice there is no safety”. As the child of Holocaust survivors I know that in my bones. This is a policy which engenders arrogance in the police. Therefore They treat EVERYONE, ( which means the rest of people in the City) as people that can be put in the subject position. That is, they are to be ruled and not that they are the rulers.

    The role of the police is to PROTECT US, NOT CONTROL US.

    As your piece so wonderfully lays out. Thank you

  6. The Dude

    The invasion of Iraq was America’s “Rubicon moment.” As Gary “The War Nerd” Brecher wrote about the 2004 presidential election, “it was as if the driver of the car got drunk, crashed the car into a tree and everybody (or at least a voting majority) got out and reelected the driver.” He also wrote that it was at that moment that he felt like he “lost his country” because of the reprehensible support of so many of his fellow citizens for that atrocity

    As for myself, while horrified by Bush and the war(s) I didn’t catch on quite that quickly–it took the Obama’s well telegraphed betrayal to seal the deal for me. Americans as a whole have remained infuriatingly passive about a whole litany of governmental abuses, both domestically and abroad, since 9/11 and at this point, I’m sorry, but none of us deserve either liberty or safety.

  7. S Brennan

    “I’m sorry, but none of us deserve either liberty or safety.”

    Not buying it, we swim in a sea of Orwellian obscurants & mis-information…at some level, we all fall victim to it. To blame people who lack the means to overcome this 24/7 propaganda, is the equivalent to blaming Jews for their deaths in the camps…because…”they should have known better” and gotten out.

    For society to exist at all there has to be some level of trust and faith in one another…and that is what villains rely on. Absent these qualities, we would not be primates, it is the essential ingredient that made possible our existence when the forests turned to savanna.

    Could we do better? Sure, we all want to change the world, but when you talk about collective blame*, don’t you know you can count me out.


  8. The Dude

    S Brennan – do you live in America? Have you done anything substantive like Manning or Snowden have done to stop it? Did you or are you at least planning to emigrate it protest? Then you, too bear the responsibility–maybe even more so because you ARE aware of what’s going on. As do I. I’m not counting myself out.

  9. NP

    To me, the most shocking (and in a way, hurtful) thing about the whole Snowden and Manning affairs (particularly Snowden) has been how many hitherto liberal people have jumped on the Authoritarian bandwagon now that their “team” is in charge of the torture shackles and spying apparatus.

    Another horrifying thing to witness is how many liberals require a form of blood sacrifice. “Oh sure, Snowden and/or Manning did us a small favor in revealing Government wrongdoing, but they need to pay a price like MLK (assasination), Mandela (30 year imprisonment) or Gandhi (assasination)”.

    The lack of empathy from liberals has been shocking and disgusting to me.

  10. The Gandhi syndrome is a really terrible one. Basically it allows privileged wealthy Westerners to point to any given liberation movement and whine, “Why can’t you be more like Gandhi?”

  11. The other thing I’d like to mention is that there a lot of people in the world who would happily say, “What’s liberty done for us, lately?”

  12. Ian Welsh

    No idea what the “Gandhi syndrome” (which I actually agree with you on) has to do with this.

    And lots of people in the world would say they’d like some liberty, too. Most of the Egyptians who voted for a government and had it taken away in a coup, to start.

    Besides, lots of people in the world will say all sorts of things which are wrong. “Housing prices never drop”, for example.

  13. I was responding to/extending NP’s comments on “blood sacrifice”, which mentioned MLK and Gandhi.

    Re: liberty. And I wasn’t referring to whether they were “right” or “wrong” in some cosmic sense—but there *are* a lot of people in the world, probably more than there are Egyptian protesters, for whom the existence of a liberty/security dichotomy is not a relevant debate. They’ll happily yield up liberty for security, and they themselves will seem to get security and appear to be validated almost by chance alone.

  14. S Brennan


    S Brennan –

    Q1] Do you live in America?
    Q2] Have you done anything substantive like Manning or Snowden have done to stop it?
    Q3] Did you or are you at least planning to emigrate it protest?

    A1] Yep
    A2] Nope
    A3] Nope. However, I have tried to emigrate on several occasions over the decades to take jobs offered in Canada, Sweden & Australia…all were blocked by THEIR respective governments correctly concerned about me taking a citizen’s job. Now had I $300-500,000.00 cash, I could have emigrated without any questions asked as to the propriety of me taking a citizens job. Seems emigration for rich folks, emigration is always a viable option, just go up to Vancouver to get the picture…glad you have the bucks and the option.


    QED 1] Then you, too bear the responsibility

    A4] What a child-like logic you have. Why you equate Manning or Snowden actions…with emigrating remains a mystery to me. And no…I don’t want to know your pretzel logic, you’re comments on this thread are beyond ridiculous. I’m not a lawyer, I don’t get get paid to blame victims in order to befuddle the jury in order to get a client off…I don’t want to ever sound like that EVER.

  15. Jessica

    The misbehavior of pro-authoritarian liberals is easier to understand once class is taken into account. The distinction between the knowledge worker class and traditional working class also helps make things more clear.

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