Who can be trusted with our secrets?

July 12, 2013

The news about government surveillance and secrecy is alarming. But it is not surprising. Governments have always been interested in controlling information. But democratic governments should be limited in their ability to do so.

Managing information is the primary occupation of many people — in social networks, in business, in sports, in religion, and in politics. When information is scarce, the demand for it goes up. That’s why it’s possible to leverage information for profit — which explains blackmail, insider trading and treason.

Social life consists of a complex game of exchanging information. The best players have a knack for obtaining and revealing information in appropriate ways. And governments have an interest in controlling the process.

Secrets are valuable, and there is power in knowing them. We value those who can keep confidences. And we threaten and punish those who disclose them. But the urge to divulge is often as strong as the desire to know. The joy of the tattletale and the blabbermouth is complemented by the curiosity of the eavesdropper and Peeping Tom. Gossip is as much fun to tell as it is to hear.

There is also satisfaction in keeping a secret. We gain a sense of superiority from knowing something that others do not know. Community develops from the loyalty and trust found among those who keep each other’s confidences. There is solidarity among those who share secrets. We like to receive that sly wink or subtle nod from those “in the know.” No one wants to be left out of the loop.

But secretiveness can be dangerous. Cabals and cults indoctrinate members by revealing secret mysteries. Magical power supposedly flows from access to esoteric knowledge. People are often willing to pay dearly to see what is concealed.

The need for secrecy is often a sign of something rotten. Perverts lurk in the shadows. Criminals whisper conspiratorially. Con men and swindlers manipulate information. Delinquents conceal their misdeeds. And cheating lovers arrange clandestine meetings.

The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “there must be some narrowness in the soul that compels one to keep secrets.” Good and virtuous things are not done surreptitiously. If we are proud of what we do and who we are, we should do it publicly.

A virtuous personality has no need to weave the tangled webs of deceit that cramp the soul. And a virtuous person has no need to pry into the private lives of others. Speak your mind. Be yourself. Leave others the privacy they deserve.

So much for individuals. But we often make exceptions for government spying and secrecy because we feel it is necessary for law and order. In order to uncover criminal conspiracies, the government may have to secretly surveil the bad guys. But one always wonders, who is watching the watchers.

The philosopher Plato solved that problem by maintaining that the rulers had to be wise and virtuous. Plato assumed that the majority of people were not virtuous enough to govern themselves. But he hoped that a wise and virtuous ruler could be empowered to manipulate and deceive us, for our own good.

Democrats, in the philosophical sense of that term, reject that idea. Democrats tend to think that governments ought to be transparent, because there is no good reason to believe that the watchers are wiser or more virtuous than we are. Democrats reject the idea that governments should be granted exceptional powers. And they believe that government should respect the liberty and privacy of individuals. As Thoreau put it, “that government is best which governs least.”

Individual privacy matters, from the point of view of democracy, because the freedom to keep and tell secrets is such an essential feature of our social lives. But governments ought not keep secrets. If we don’t know what the government is doing on our behalf, how can we claim to be governing ourselves?

Some fear that bad guys will exploit democratic liberty and transparency. They will want to empower the surveillance state as Plato did, for the good of the whole. But followers of Thoreau may suspect that growing state surveillance and secrecy indicates an undemocratic narrowing of the soul of the nation.