Whistle-blowing and liberal democracy

Suppose you’re at least roughly a political liberal. You think that representative democracy is very important. You believe that there should be a government which mediates between different interests in society. I take it that so far what I have described would be pretty reasonable to most major political parties in North America, Europe and Australia if put in those terms.

I think it is pretty obvious that such a representative-democratic society is going to need whistle-blowers. If nothing ever gets out of the folders marked secret and into the hands of the public then the deeds described in those folders are only going to get worse and worse. In its secretive acts the beauraucracy is accountable only to itself, and its acts will increasingly align with its interests.

Nor will permitting whistle-blowers to go to other branches of the government suffice. It’s better than nothing, but in the end it’s still a closed system, a stagnant pond, if the public can never hear about it. Bringing other arms of the system in may work for a while, but in the end it will simply spread the complicity. Beaurcracies must be faced with the threat of classified information reaching the public or else corruption will multiply. There is no other choice.

You can even make a sort of decision theoretic model of this that works quite nicely. Suppose that crates arrive at a shipping port containing either illegal smuggled guns (information detailing corruption), or highly time sensitive medicine (things that are legitimately classified). Opening a crate is either harmful, because the medicine is lost, or helpful, because guns are detected and their porters captured, preventing them from operating again.

Clearly you do not want to throw open every crate because then you’d lose all of the medicine, but opening a few will reduce the quantity of smuggling by providing a deterrent. In other words, a system of recognised and respected whistleblowing does not entirely eliminate the barrier between classified and known, but it makes it just permeable enough to stop dark things growing in dark places. The threat of discovery hovers like a customs inspector and a compromise is broached between the need for secrecy and the need for accountability, with some loss to both.

Of course the argument sort of breaks down for me and a lot of others, since we’d like nothing more than to throw open all the crates. I’m sure though you can see how it would work if you accepted the initial premises of this post: maintaining liberal democracy and the current order of things.

What is interesting about the points so far is no that they are deep and new, but that they are simple and old. They have been at least implicitly, and often explicitly, recognised for a long time. When put in the abstract, no one can argue them. These points are part of the reason why we typically regard whistle-blowers as heroes and not as knaves.

In the real world though, outside of essays and time-worn principles, media and political elites have become much less sympathetic. Of itself, this is not troubling or surprising. The elite have frequently expressed scepticism about the line between traitor and whistle-blower. This time though the ire seems unusually vicious and thorough. We should be concerned that maybe the elite actors have decided they do not find liberal democracy quite as useful as they once did. As unsatisfactory as liberal democracy is, we must defend it against the sort of alternatives they would push. I’ve got an unpleasant hunch that Snowden’s treatment is an opening shot in a nasty struggle .

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About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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