Liberal Thinking

Secrecy and Economics:

Via the Dawn Patrol, I found Right Wing of the Gods' critique of a piece called "My Liberal Manifesto." The Manifesto itself is not that interesting because it does not examine the ideas it puts forward, but instead merely asserts them. The formula is "I believe X," period.

The critique (which continues here) is much more interesting, because it explains the reasons behind why Dans, the author, agrees or disagrees with each position. As it stands, it is a very good explanation of a centrist-right libertarian's reasons for rejecting the leftist model. It would be a very useful exercise for someone who adheres to the original positions to explain why they think their positions are the stronger ones, addressing the particulars raised in the critique.

I am obviously not the person to do it, for the most part. I can, however, engage the gentleman on at least one question. I think he brings up a good point about government secrecy, a topic we were just discussing at length. I have to quote part of his answer on economics first, for reasons that will become clear:

I believe that the government is no more corrupt or inefficient than a huge multinational corporation (Enron),

Of course Enron was the exception, not the rule. The market also dealt with their dishonesty, as James K. Glassman noted:
The Enron scandal was primarily a story of executives and auditors deceiving investors about the true state of a business. If it was "greed" that caused the deception, it was greed that uncovered it as well. James Chanos, a money manager who specializes in short-selling (speculating that a stock's price will fall), got wind of Enron's shenanigans, and tipped off a reporter at Fortune. Enron was forced to restate its earnings and acknowledge hidden debts.

Investors reacted with fury, dump-ing Enron stock. The company's worth declined from $30 billion to almost nothing. Before any indictment or government report, the market pronounced Enron guilty and imposed a sentence of capital punishment. Then longtime clients started punishing Arthur Andersen, Enron's auditor. Delta ended its 53-year relationship with the auditor, as did Merck and Freddie Mac. Andersen, and the executives who allowed it to stray, face oblivion.
The government? It does the very same thing, as Walter Williams wrote:
Enron used accounting gimmicks to hide debt and make corporate executives look good and earn fat bonuses. Congress does the same thing. Each year, it transfers vast sums of money from the Social Security and the Federal Highway trust funds to hide debt, and they boastfully lie to us saying they've not only balanced the budget but created a surplus.
So what's the difference between Enron and the government? Enron doesn't exist anymore! Not because of government action, but because the people withdrew their support by selling their stock. Yet Washington has no such worry.
That argument underlies his argument against worrying over government secrecy, which is in part two of the critique.
I believe the government should be transparent and open to prevent corruption rather than always hiding behind ‘national security’,

What difference would that make? As my first post on this subject pointed out with Social Security, government corruption exists openly. The problem with corruption isn't so much that it's kept secret under "national security", it's that the people are oblivious to it even when it's not hidden from view. The corruption in government is made possible only because of the apathy of the people.
The author goes on to state the argument from security in addition. Joel and I were just having that discussion, so I won't repeat it. I do think that the fellow raises an interesting point here, however: that it hardly matters if government corruption were exposed, as relatively few Americans care. It wouldn't make any difference if we knew.

The argument hinges on the idea that Americans are prepared to accept corruption at a certain level, in order to avoid being bothered with stopping it. Political involvement of the type that can change Federal policies is hard work and lots of it, and there is no guarantee that you will achieve any success even if you invest that kind of time and work because there will be others organizing against you (look at, for example; their endless fundraising and spending, organizing and politicing hasn't actually accomplished any of their goals). That kind of personal investment is something most people would rather not make, preferring to spend the time they have away from work on family or hobbies or other enjoyable activities.

Because the activity is so engrained in our political culture, changing it requires a tremendous amount of energy -- not just electing a new representative, but changing the entire leadership of at least one of the houses of Congress. You could do that either by pressuring or replacing the current leadership of the party in power, so that they became devout on the question of not playing budgetary games; or by electing a new party into power. The first of these two is hard, as described above. The second is easier, but perhaps very expensive: if you disagree with the opposition party on important matters, you may very well choose to accept a certain number of bad things from the current party rather than replace them with a party that will turn the government in a direction you would dislike.

The question is whether it would be the same with issues of moral corruption, rather than budgetary gamesmanship. The answer, I think, is that we would very much like to believe that it would not... but that there is probably a large zone of moral corruption issues where it would indeed be the same. I think there are some core, bedrock issues that Americans care about more than they care about their personal politics -- a government that openly banned the free exercise of religion, or ignored election results, would surely come in for serious trouble.

On the other hand, we have seen internal pressure used effectively, for example in the case of the recent abortive Supreme Court nomination. Without rehashing the merits of that particular case, it does show that there are at least some issues that are important enough to draw popular revolt within a party. The composition of the Supreme Court is probably one of them for both parties; abortion is one for the Democratic Party. There probably aren't a lot of issues like this, though, because the parties are both coalitions of groups with similar but different interests and priorities. On the issues where those interests are largely aligned, the party isn't terribly likely to buck its base anyway. A revolt of this type is therefore only likely to happen on issues when the coalition is broadly united on a point, and the party leadership goes the other way. Why would they do that?

Well, they might do it if it could be done in secret.

There is a real difference between the calculation described above, which Dans calls apathy but which is really an understandable economic calculation, and the case of moral corruption in secret. In the one case, we as a people are making decisions about what we care about enough to invest our time and energy in. We are aware of the cost of trying to change things, and the cost of leaving them alone, and we are making a free choice.

Even if Dans is correct that people would be apathetic on issues of moral corruption -- as I said, I think they might be on at least some of them, though there are bedrock issues that would draw revolt -- the "apathy" is itself an exercise of a free people. The evidence is all there; they can choose to look or not to look, to act or not to act. The nature of the Republic is preserved by this.

In cases where corruption is secret -- and here I am not asserting that there is any secret corruption going on in the government, because of course I do not know -- the People can't perform their duty as citizens. They have no choice. They are prevented from being moral actors, because they are given no knowledge. To the degree that the government operates secretly, it ceases to be a government of the People.

I am therefore moved to side with the liberal on this question, with the unfortunately large exception carved out by the argument from danger. Sadly, there are things that really do need to be secret. As Joel and I recently discussed, I think our national security could actually be improved by lessening secrecy and increasing distribution of sensitive information. But I do not argue that we can do that with all information. It is clear that we cannot. There really must be some secrecy for reasons of national security, and it would be irresponsible to argue otherwise.

Dans may very well be right that sunshine would not prevent corruption, or at least not many kinds of corruption. Even if it did not, it would still be the right thing to do. It is right because it preserves the character of the Republic, and allows the People to be free and to choose. To the very greatest degree possible, then, we ought to pursue it.

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