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So, the whole Wikileaks thing, eh. What should you think about it? Read on to find out.

What’s it all about anyway?

Maybe you didn’t follow, so let’s recap. Wikileaks is a website that publishes well, leaked information. Mostly governmental documents, diplomatic cables and the like, but lots of other stuff too.

Now, the interesting part which deserves a reaction is that recently, various governments have strongly criticized Wikileaks, and called it a security threat, calling for it’s censorship and for it to be basically closed down.

Not only is that preposterous, but quite dangerous and wrong. The rest of this post will show why.

The appropriate reaction

Let’s assume for a minute that Wikileaks’ revelations are reprehensible. What is the appropriate reaction towards reprehensible contents? The answer for this is known for decades, and yet people – and especially governments – keep advocating the wrong response.

Basically, the choice is between a censorship system, or a responsibility system. Annoyingly, it seems many people are confused as to what both systems mean.

Censorship

Censorship means blocking speech a priori, i.e., it is blocked before it is even publicly uttered. There are two ways this is usually implemented. Either someone (usually a government agency) reviews all speech to be published and either accepts or refuses it’s publication, or somebody is purely and simply silenced.

If you support either censorship system you are basically saying that you do not believe in freedom of speech, since you consider people are only entitled to publicize approved speech. This is very much a totalitarian system.

Worryingly, this is what people explicitly or implicitly advocate in the Wikileaks case.

Responsibility

A responsibility based system is a posteriori. It’s quite simple really. If publicly expressed speech is harmful, the publisher is responsible. As always, reparation can be made both in nature (removal of the harmful content), and by equivalent (paying money to whoever was harmed).

The key element is that no assumption is made on who is speaking. Only specific contents are punished. If both harmful and unharmful contents are uttered by a specific person or organisation, only the harmful ones are punished.

Why responsibility is better

It should be obvious, but as so often, I’d rather make sure the obvious is stated:

– The first censorship implementation system requires an impartial party to review all contents. Who can be entrusted with this mission, bearing in mind nobody will be able to review his actions since the contents won’t be published? In all known such systems, the review was highly opinion-based, politically motivated. And it cannot be otherwise.

– Responsibility only punishes actual harm, whereas the second implementation method of censorship (currently advocated by many in the Wikileaks case) blocks both harmful and unharmful contents. This means that such censorship actually punishes you for crimes you haven’t yet committed.

– Responsibility requires an actual damage being proven (including for instance violation of a law). This allows for a factual review, in front of a court of law, allowing for proper defence by the person uttering the speech. This is not possible in a censorship system, where you’re just blocked and have nothing to say about it.

Debunking some lame arguments

I have hopefully shown that whatever you think of Wikileaks, if action should be taken against it, it should be responsibility based. Now I will debunk a series of criticisms targeted against Wikileaks.

It’s illegal!

Well, I would not be surprised quite a few of Wikileaks’ documents (and their publishing) infringe on certain laws. However, if that is so, how come Wikileaks hasn’t been brought to court? Australian Police recently concluded there was no evidence of unlawfulness. So maybe they haven’t done anything legally wrong. If so, seeking any form of punishment is, well, illegal and totalitarian.

Wikileaks endangers people

I fail to fully understand this one. Wikileaks doesn’t reveal plans that haven’t yet been executed upon. Revealing stuff after the fact doesn’t endanger anyone [UPDATE: by stuff, I mean anything else than people’s names]. Furthermore, when they did mess up the anonymization of certain documents (which is the only case where after the fact damage can be made), they swiftly suggested partnerships with their critics to improve the anonymization process. Tellingly, the critics did next to nothing. Makes me think this argument is a straw man.

Furthermore, as far as privacy violations go, regular newspapers do much worse. They routinely disclose names of criminal suspect investigations, often ruining lives in the process. Singling out Wikileaks for this is hypocritical at best.

Why not disclose all personal emails?

This one is quite funny. If you’re so keen on having all these secret governmental papers disclosed, the argument goes, how would you like it if all your emails were publicly disclosed?

Of course, this is a ludicrous argument that completely misses the point. Natural persons have a (very important) right to privacy, which would be violated by the disclosure of their personal communications. Governments and their agencies, on the other hand, don’t. What’s more, Governments should be accountable to the people for their actions. Knowing what they do is necessary for this, and disclosure of their communications aids this goal.

I’ll dig into this further, but for now, let’s just remember that it’s ridiculous to compare Governments and natural persons in this context.

Wikileaks hasn’t released anything important

This one is funny too. It says that Wikileaks is useless because it hasn’t revealed anything important or interesting. If so, then why make a fuss about it and not just let it be?

Unless the point being made is that only useful and ground breaking information deserves to be published. If that’s the reasoning, then most of what is being published, whether on the web or in paper, should be banned, because most of what’s out there is useless drivel.

Not everyone can handle the information

This is one of the more interesting, and also more worrying, arguments made.

It actually contains two parts:

1) There is too much information, nobody can process that much information.

2) The information is too complex, very few people can make anything out of it.

Where can I even start with this?

First off, nobody ever said everyone in the whole wide world should master knowledge about all subjects equally. Well, I’m pretty sure some crackpot socialist might have said that once, but let’s get real.

Nobody can process the quantity of information being published in all the newspapers of a small country like Belgium either. Should they all be banned too? And maybe replaced by only one manageable newspaper which we could call The Truth? Oh wait, that’s been done already… Seriously, people!

And then the argument that not everybody can understand the information or put it in context. So what? I’m fairly certain that most people coming across my post here aren’t able to properly understand the latest journals in particle physics either. Should they be banned too?

Let me break the news: we live in a complex world. Nobody can fully understand it today. But that’s ok. Because different people have different areas of expertise and master various different areas of knowledge.

After all, the complexity of the information being leaked isn’t any greater than what becomes available to the general public in governmental archives after 30 years. And guess what: the information in those archives is meaningfully processed by experts. We call them historians, political scientists, and sometimes journalists. Why couldn’t they process more recent information which is the same in nature?

The importance of what these people do will be re-stated later.

Secrets are necessary

Another perplexing one as far as I’m concerned. I hear claims that governments need to protect secrets.

I’m very sorry, but which governmental secrets deserve to be protected?

The usual suspect is diplomacy. “Oh my, but diplomacy wouldn’t work without secrecy”, is an oft made claim. Well, would it really be such a bad thing if diplomacy didn’t work? I mean, if we’re saying that Governments should be able to publicly say one thing and secretly do another, very sorry, but no. That removes all accountability and basically means citizens are deceived. Which is unacceptable.

Now, if the purpose is to say that negotiations sometimes need to carry some secrecy to be effective, sure. But then who’s to be blamed if the these secrets are revealed? The whistle-blower, or the negligent party who allowed the secret to be revealed?

And, to be honest, I even have some defiance about these secret negotiations. A few examples will come later as to why.

Another area where secrecy is claimed to be useful is the military. First, it should be noted that Wikileaks has only, to the best of my knowledge, revealed things after the fact, i.e., has not revealed any military plans while they were current.

Furthermore, you should here again be much more worried about the fact that a relatively limited organisation such as Wikileaks could gain access to military information. It means the people who could benefit from that knowledge sure as hell could gain access to it too.

Apart from those ones, I haven’t yet heard of any even remotely convincing example of governmental secret that deserves to be kept.

Why Wikileaks style free speech matters

I’ve hopefully shown that arguments against Wikileaks are weak at best, and that if Wikileaks does commit something bad, it should be acted upon based on responsibility and not censorship.

But now it’s time to see why Wikileaks is something extremely healthy indeed.

See, if democracy is to even remotely work, you have to be certain that checks and balances are correctly in place. This basically means that no single government or governmental agency can act without being controlled and kept in check by counter-powers.

One of the most important of these counter-powers is traditionally, but incorrectly, known as the press.

Naming this the press is historically understandable, but inaccurate. The actual counter-power is the free flow of information within the governed society. The press has historically been the main vector of this flow, but is by no means the only one, especially in this day and age.

Basically, this counter-power is based on the fact citizens can have access to information that enables them to better judge and evaluate their Government, and, ultimately, control it. Which is kind of the point in the first place.

As we have seen, some are so rash as to say that Wikileaks is too complex for citizens. But that’s where historians, political scientists and journalists come in handy. They can use Wikileaks as a source to better inform citizens, via analysis and vulgarization.

Whether Wikileaks has yet completely fulfilled this role is irrelevant. It has the potential to do so. And the hidden agenda of those opposing it is to silence counter-powers. Which is downright terrifying.

Because contrary to what some naysayers try to make believe, this kind of counter-power is useful. At the end of the day, this is the kind of thing that allowed to know about (very non-exhaustive list) in no particular order:

Watergate

The Iran Contra affair

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (Those defending the secrecy of diplomatic negotiations don’t look so good now, do they?)

The Iraq prison abuse scandals

– Miterrand’s involvement in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior

Gulags

Etc. These things were revealed by investigative journalism. Which has nearly gone the way of the dodo. It’s good that Wikileaks is picking up the mantle.

So it’s really up to you to decide. Do you want to be on the side of those who would rather this kind of thing remained secret “for the greater good of the State”?

I don’t.

Conclusion

All in all, the whole story is quite easy.

Arguments against Wikileaks are mostly bogus. Wikileaks is one example of those phenomena that make the difference between (relative…) freedom and totalitarianism. So it should be supported on principle, all the more so because there is no evidence it has caused any harm other than ruffling Governments’ feathers.

Were it to err, the adequate solution would be the time tested solution of responsibility. Not censorship.

You’re free to disagree. Totalitarians do. But unlike me, they’ll deny you the freedom to disagree with them.

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I recently had an interesting discussion on twitter with @e_jim and @Davanlo about why Europe was a good thing. I have come to believe it isn’t, and I will expand slightly on why I believe that here .

Regulation costs

The key point to why I have come to distrust Europe is because it over-regulates. But it’s not just about the fact Europe regulates too much (although it does). It’s about the excessive cost of European regulation.

As you know, when Europe emits a regulation, it has to be transposed into local legislation. This is not a trivial exercise for the Member States, and requires full legislative efforts on their behalf.

This means you bear the cost of regulating twice: once on European level and once at country level.

Furthermore, because Member States have a degree of freedom in transposing European legislation, the whole idea of a unique legislative framework for Europe is actually negated. The same policy decisions are applicable all over Europe, but legislation does differ.

So we bear the costs of two levels of regulation instead of one.

Lack of legislative competition

The suggested solution to this is to skip the national level implementation. This would indeed solve the cost problem more or less, but a more fundamental problem would remain. The lack of legislative competition.

The idea is simple really. With legislation at lower levels, you can more easily compare the effects of different policies, see which work, and go in the right direction. In the same way competition leads to success of the best products, legislative competition leads to the success of the best policies. This is how communism and harsh protectionism finally went were they deserved to.

This occurs among others through voting and, more importantly, voters voting with their feet. It becomes much more difficult to do this if the same policies apply across a territory as large as Europe’s. And of course, having less reference points, it becomes much more difficult to spot the better policy. All the more so when all policies are half baked compromise policies as they are today.

The problem with compromise politics is that it becomes impossible to identify the part of the compromise which is responsible for the failure of the policy. So it just continues going on, and having no easy comparison point, the policy sustains itself despite lacklustre results.

More thoughts on this can be found in this post and it’s comments.

It should be added that legislative competition at higher levels (say, between the US and Europe and China) doesn’t work. Because of the massive size of the regions, and the massively different history and contexts, difference of policy performance is explained away. “This American policy wouldn’t work in Europe”, etc. And one has to admit, the argument has merit. For competition to be able to work, you do need some form of homogeneity, to make the comparison valid. The complexity of comparing the US to Europe makes the exercise nearly impossible. Belgium and France on the other hand, are manageable comparison units.

Special interests

Another issue is that centralization of power leads to the power of lobbies & special interest groups. I seem to be meeting a lobbyist every other week in Brussels these days. Of course, having a central locus of power to focus upon makes lobbies’ jobs so much easier. As such, it is my belief they gain much more traction than when powers were more local, and money runs the show in ways not conceivable before.

Again, this boils down to legislative competition. Realistically, a given lobby could hardly lobby all the local governments successfully. As such, only certain local governments would see their policies influenced by the lobby. And it would quickly become apparent how the policy is flawed.

This does not happen when lobbies can influence Brussels directly.

Just consider whether agriculture in Europe would be the same without the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe. And ask yourself if it would be a bad thing. The fine print if you lack the imagination is that France would not have the money to sustain such an ill-advised policy on it’s own, but it can thanks to the fact all of Europe pays for it.

The same applies to much less obvious domains though, areas where lobbies didn’t even exist due to organisational costs when the locus of power was more local.

Protectionism

Protectionism is an interesting topic, and one easily misunderstood. An argument in favour of the European Union is that it stops the Member States from adopting protectionist policies. While that is true, the Union as it currently exists is massive overkill to achieve that goal. Trade agreements are enough for that.

Furthermore, the largely unperceived perverse effect of the Union is that it acts as an incentive to develop protectionism of the Union against other regions of the world. Which is one of the factors spurring the extreme over-regulation of the Union. If you think consumer law is only about protecting the consumer an not blocking off foreign competition, think again. Think about the Microsoft trials. The Galileo project.

And contrary to protectionism at a lower level, the adverse effects don’t hurt the Union fast enough for the policy to be quickly identified as negative and repelled.

In a nutshell

The Union generates excessive regulation costs, stops legislative competition from taking place and allows for protectionism. Further reading on why I distrust the EU can be found here and what I suggest as alternative can be found here.

When you start infringing on people’s rights, you start a vicious circle where you need to infringe on more and more rights as time goes by, to try to make your infringements possible. Take immigration for instance. 

Nowadays, immigration is limited. You need a country’s approval to go there. This is a very serious limitation on one of the most important freedoms there is: the one to move around as you damn well please. For millennia, there was no limiting that. But in recent decades, it has become near universal practice to limit immigration. Why is that?

You see, the post-war world has come up with one of the most massive non-sustainable rights infringements there is: social security. Ok, it’s all fine and dandy to have this nice idea to help out people in need, but the catch is that somebody has to pay for that. So to make it work, governments infringe on the property rights of their citizens. Indeed, to try to make it work, governments tax the hell out of their citizens.

The problem is, social security becomes attractive for people from less well-off countries. Before social security, they would immigrate when there were job opportunities, therefore contributing to society’s well-being – a win-win situation. But with social security, they also have an incentive to immigrate even when there aren’t any job opportunities, if social security can provide them with a better standard of living than their own country.

This puts an even higher burden on public finances, as financing the scam that is social security becomes harder.

So, to avoid making the unsustainability of social security too obvious too soon, governments limit immigration. And this is an unacceptable limitation of people’s liberty of movement.

As an aside

Another line of reasoning holds that immigration is a problem for cultural reasons, with integration/assimilation being the tough part. While that might have some truth, the fact is that when triggered by (real) economic opportunity, integration/assimilation quickly follows immigration – just look at the history of the US or 60’s immigration in Europe.

Cultural problems only ensue when immigration is spurred by social security incentives without real economic opportunity. In that case, the fatal mix of massive immigration without the integrating factor of working alongside locals creates cultural ghettos and associated problems.

Hence, without the social security incentives, immigration would mechanically lower, and integration/assimilation would be much easier.

In a nutshell

Infringing the people’s property rights to support the scam that is social security leads to infringing people’s freedom of movement. This is a universal trend – infringement of basic rights leads to ever more infringements. Hence why basic rights shouldn’t be messed with. Unfortunately, that message seems lost on politicians…

Democracy is, sure enough, as the old Churchill quote goes, the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be improved.

The thing that worries me about democracy is that, when practised on a large scale, it destroys the very thing which makes it desirable: the possibility of dissent through three means:

  1. Excessive intermediation
  2. Destruction of local specificities
  3. Levelling of opinion

 

But before going on to those three means, what do I mean by “practised on large scale”? Well, basically, when one democratic entity is too large. Your typical example would be Europe, governed by the European Union. But Belgium fits the bill too. What exactly is the right size, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely smaller than most countries.

Anyway, on to how things go awry.

Excessive intermediation

This one is only really obvious in very large democratic units, usually when some sort of federation is going on. Between “We the People” and whoever our government is, there are just too many levels of representation.

But it’s not just that our “elected” representative elects a representative who elects a representative who actually governs. It goes quite further.

At the end of the day, the election concept is based on the idea that you are going to vote for somebody who will, at least broadly speaking, represent your views. Someone with you’ll agree most of the time.

The problem is, I don’t know that many people with whom I agree most of the time. And none of them is a politician.

So basically, the issue is the scope of the mandate we give our elected leaders. I don’t know many people with whom I agree most of the time, but I know a lot of people with whom I mostly agree on economic issues. Or social issues. Or defence issues. Or health issues. You get the idea.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could vote for actual ideas instead of people? And specific ones too, where you wouldn’t have to accept the bundle that is a party’s program, which you are bound not to agree with in full.

Removing excessive intermediation would help that.

Destruction of local specificities

Obviously, if you go more than a few kilometres away from where you live, the average concerns of the people will start to change. Not necessarily dramatically, but they will vary. If you go hundreds or thousand of kilometres away, radical change is likely. The concerns of the Greeks just now are rather different from those of, say the Germans.

Yet through large scale democracy, these differences are necessarily brushed away, or, at the very least, compromised about.

The consequences are clear. The desires of some will be sacrificed in name of the desires of others, or, more likely, nobody’s desires will be met, and some compromise will leave everybody unhappy.

Some of these differences might be conjunctural, but some could be more permanent. This means structural disagreements will lead either to permanent dissatisfaction of large numbers of people, or to structural modification of opinions as people tire of being unhappy. Which leads us to the last element.

Levelling of opinion

Through both media and normative uniformity, large-scale democracy tends to level opinions. Extremes are quietly pushed aside. It becomes ever more difficult to escape conformity. Because as regulation becomes unified, so do the reasonings behind them. And these in turn get loudly communicated.

The thing about Big, is that it can – and does – impose it’s views. A belief shared by millions of people remains just that: a belief. But it does look a lot like a truth, and those who have no beliefs or have doubts about their own beliefs will be all the more likely to adopt that belief.

It’s positive reinforcement really. You are encouraged to share the beliefs of your fellow citizens.

Of course, it’s nice to share beliefs. But I like to share them based on more than just group-think. I like to share them based on reasoning, constructive criticism, challenges. But in a large forum, there is no room for that. There is room only for slogans. Mass appeal.

In a nutshell

In a nutshell, democracy on a large scale erases differences. And not in the good way. Very gently, like an overbearing kindergarten teacher, it instils in people the need to conform. And erases personality, displacing any possibility of anything more than symbolic dissent.

So what?

So, will I just complain? Well, since I’m a grumpy old man, I’ll do whatever I please, thank you very much. But no, here are at least a few outlines of solutions (don’t complain about the fact these are nothing more than outlines, it gives me stuff to think and write about later):

  • First, obviously, the locus of power should be brought much closer to the people. How close, not sure, but definitely low. I’m thinking town level or something.
  • Second, have people discuss ideas. Enable them to vote on issues. Why not referendums? It works for the Swiss. Could work for others too.
  • Third, test-drive new ideas. Let people not pay that new tax. See what happens. If they don’t pay it, they don’t want it.

 

Sound a lot like “direct democracy”? Sure. That’s the only real one there is…

Or at least, I deeply agree with those who qualify.