Sunday, June 13, 2010

Government Again - Secrecy

Below is a link to a New York Times article on the Obama Administration and its decision to go after those who leak government information to the press and perhaps others even if this information does not threaten national security and even if the leaks were motivated by a desire to reveal government ineptness or corruption.

Now this might strike some as surprising but it should not. After all, government and secrecy go together even better than love and marriage or a horse and a wagon. Although it is too little recognized, secrecy is an intimate and indispensable characteristic of government. It is not, as it is so often spoken about, a disease or virus that infects government. Why is this the case?

It is the case because, most importantly, government is an institution that is geared for action. Government is not, as we too often think, an institution that is geared to or for debate. Of course, debates occur within the institution but they are always less than welcome because those in the government want to act and they want to act "with energy and dispatch," as Alexander Hamilton pointed out in the Federalist Papers. Because government is all about power and of course its exercise, it and those in it want to act. It and they want action. Secrecy serves this purpose because with secrecy, debate can be short circuited or avoided. Secrecy is convenient.

Secondly, governments are required to do things that are, strictly speaking, indefensible. That is, some government actions, a lot of government actions, cannot be adequately defended and, hence, must be kept secret. Otherwise, the legitimacy of government, of any government would be undermined. And without legitimacy, any government is bound to fail. If government operated "transparently," as we say today, it would lose its legitimacy and it would fail. Necessarily and inevitably. We know this whenever we see into the workings of government, especially when we see what the government does not want us to see. There is an old expression: "If you saw how sausage was made, you would not eat it again." This expression has been applied to the making of laws as well and, I would argue, that it can be applied government itself. A transparent government would fail.

This phenomenon helps explain why, among other items, why good people, decent people, most often want no part of governing and why good people, decent people, when they do govern are judged failures. On the other hand, people with insufficiently developed consciences, for want of better words, often do very well as governors, as participants in the process of government. Think of it like a meat processing plant: If you are appalled by the slaughter of animals, which is of course indispensable for making sausages or even steaks, then you will not fare well in a meat processing plant. Similarly, if you are a queasy type, one who does not take pleasure in doing things that are indefensible, then you will not fare well in the government.

This might sound terrible and, of course, it is. But I would argue "it is what it is,"
as we like to say too much today. Government accomplishes quite a bit, or so it would seem. But these accomplishments come at a price. As another old expression has it: "There is no such thing as a free lunch."

The link:

No comments:

Post a Comment