2015/08/10

Secrecy and democracy

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Intelligence services and government secrets have been in the spotlight for years. This probably recurred because of the scrutiny about the "WMD" paranoia of 2001/2002, but ever since Manning and Snowden whistleblowed we've been on an altogether different level of awareness that Western governments have a ton of secrets. Everybody knew that there were military secrets, of course. The novelty was in the attention paid to the fact that the government is keeping secret what it did in the people's name, but what doesn't necessarily gain the people's approval when they learn about it.

Some comments of the established media pointed at a general collision between the transparency necessities of a functional democracy and the secrecy necessities of a military and of functional clandestine intelligence gathering and processing.

I suppose this ignores the actual nature of a Western society.


The truest democracy is direct democracy - the citizens pay attention to an issue, form an opinion, vote, and the issue is decided.
This is way too much work for the almost thousand laws that Western governments pass per year. It's suitable for the big questions ("Shall we join/leave the Euro currency?", "Shall the constitution be changed like this?", "Shall these two federal states fusion?", "Shall our city apply for Olympic Summer Games in 2024?").

Representative democracy economizes on the effort required for decisionmaking by delegating the decision-making job to a small group of authorized citizens. The "democracy" in this is that the authorization has its origin in a general election.

Yet even the few hundred representatives cannot cope with reading and understanding hundreds of laws passed per year, much less over a thousand dismissed drafts and thousands of preliminary draft versions. They delegate this to an even smaller group among themselves, the comittee. he representatives are oftne in mroe than one committee and all that work of the committee is still too much for them, so the committee members of a specific party often delegate the detail work to one of their group who reports the findings later.

Still, government is way too big and complex and specific activities and judgments require specific expertise, so the vast majority of decisions are actually left to bureaucrats instead of elected officials. This is where rpresentative democracy ends and technocracy begins. Politicians may be able to influence hire or fire of technocrats (not so much in the judiciary branch usually) and can set rules and budgets for the bureaucrats/technocrats, but that's about it. No politician is supposed to judge whether a specific restaurant is too filthy - that's the job of a bureaucrat, an inspector.

Those Snowden/Mannig secrets were secrets of the bureaucracy, not so much of politicians. Democracy and Secrecy didn't collide - democracy simply doesn't extend into the realm where those secrets were held and classified in the first place.


Many citizens are now paying attention, though. This is new - and once they pay attention they wish to have influence. Most Western states do not offer them the ability to exert this influence directly through plebiscites, but the desire for the democracy to affect the bureaucracy is awake in this case.

What comes to light are typical and predictable patterns of behaviour that long-time readers of this blog have already read about. The bureaucracy/technocracy has its own interests and pursues these special interests instead of the best interest of the nation. This includes overclassifying in order to cover up bad actions or outcomes. It includes defensive responses to the public along the lines of archaic tribal or clan-centric behaviour.
Secrecy is also misused to keep the realm of technocracy as large as possible and the reach of democracy as small as possible.

The problem is not a collision between incompatible concepts of organisation. What we saw was that the citizens shone light into the black box of technocracy/bureaucracy and thus expanded the reach of the democratic culture at least temporarily.



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