This started off as a reply to a comment on Samizdata but by the time I reached the fifth paragraph, I realised it might as well be a full blown blog post. Below is the remark to which I was replying but this article is now really about explaining why I have moved from tentative opposition to inescapable support for Wikileaks.
When the Saudi diplomat expressed concern about Iran – something that he would not have done without the presumption of secrecy – that information was intended for the American government and no one else.
This is actually the very core of the ‘systemic attack’ that Assange has made on nation-states. It is precisely by attacking their ability to informally and easily exchange casual and often banal information that has such remarkable implications on the ability of states to act the way states act.
It does not need to be “the date of D-Day” kind of revelations (the kind I too want to remain secret) that can significantly interfere with a state’s ability to act as a ‘conspiracy’ (and not in the “Grassy Knoll” or “Bilderburg” or similar gonzo conspiracy theory sense)… indeed I wish Assange had never used the word ‘conspiracy’… I have long described the Green movement ‘Warmists’ as a ‘confluence of interests’ rather than a ‘conspiracy’… but I actually mean the exact same thing when discussing the Greens as Assange means when he describes Government as a ‘conspiracy’…
But if you are someone of the view that the modern regulatory welfare state has vastly too much power over its subjects, and that these states are unreformable from within the ‘democratic’ systems… the very systems that have been in place during the growth of this overweening state power, then a valid way to oppose that power is to carry out systemic attacks on the very networks that allow that ‘confluence of interests’ to express what those interests are and to thereby find ways to achieve that confluence. And thus making even the banal gossip-like ruminations of functionaries and statesmen public is far more damaging than it might seem as it undermines the very ability to form informal yet secure relationships. By forcing the state to lock down their internal modes of communication, making them less accessible to everyone, not just Julian Assange, Wikileaks deals a more profound blow to states than a half century of earnest pro-liberty pamphleteers and people in good faith trying to work the system to roll back western panoptic regulatory statism.
If you think the state is too powerful, yet you do not want to see the state damaged by systemic attacks like Assange’s Wikileaks, then presumably you think the state’s power can be trimmed back significantly within the system. Indeed this was long my hope as I am a minarchist and thus see some role for the state in keeping barbarian hordes at bay, preventing plagues and putting out fires (the ‘nightwatchman state’)… but I think now that the idea this roll back of modern pervasive regulatory statism could ever be achieved via democratic politics is not just naive but verges on delusional.
If you actually want a less powerful state, then how do you think it will be weakened and rolled back? By what process? And at what cost?
If like me, you are not an anarchist who wants to see the complete collapse of the nation-state, but rather are someone who actually supports some of what the state does, i.e. you are a classical liberal conservative or minarchist of some ilk, then you need to accept that there will be costs and casualties in the process getting to where you want to go. And if you ever want to make enemies, try actually changing something that other people benefit from.
That is why this process of rolling back the state has to be something which, with great linguistic trepidation, I am forced to describe as nothing less than a ‘revolutionary’ process… and in any revolutionary process some of what you value will be damaged or destroyed. That is simply unavoidable if you are serious about rolling back the state… a carefully targeted campaign just against the ‘bad stuff’ is exactly what working within the system has long tried to do, and it is impossible to look at the last fifty years and not conclude it has largely failed to prevent the inexorable growth of vast and increasingly transnational panoptic regulatory states.
And that is what leaves us with the choice of supporting systemic attacks on the state to weaken it, or the alternative… being acquiescence with the status quo because we are not willing to see our particular sacred cows get gored in the conflict.
In my case, as an uncompromising anti-communist cold warrior and then a broad supporter of military action against Yugoslavia/Serbia and then against Al Qaeda and Ba’athist Socialism, my area of acute pain is seeing the ability of the military to operate get caught in the crossfire. That is the state function I value and what torments me when I find myself nevertheless forced to support what Assange has done regardless.
The only reason I can make this final leap is that in our post-Cold War era where systemic opposition to western regulatory states is no longer tantamount to support for Soviet Communism regardless of one’s ostensible motivation (the ‘useful idiot’ syndrome’… Rothbard was a ‘useful idiot’ for this reason and that is why I refuse to lionise him).
But in 2010 there is simply no longer an overarching justification for tolerating powerful state institutions. Context changes everything. Indeed the Cold War mental ‘legacy meta-context’ of many of liberty’s friends needs to update to sync with the context of this post Cold War era. I have been as guilty here as any.
So given that the military threat posed to the Western world, namely Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, is a small yapping but rabid toy poodle compared to the threat of, say the Soviets or before them the Nazis, Imperial Germany, Napoleon or Ottoman Turks… and modern threats like China, North Korea or Iran are regional threats rather than global ones… I just cannot see how, if I want to see a growth in liberty and reduction in the over-mighty state, that I can justify not supporting what Assange is doing, however much I might wish to ring fence ‘my’ favourite bits of the state from the hale of incendiary fire falling from the internet. I might see it differently if I was living in Israel or South Korea, but I do not and moreover I do not see Wikileaks as posing a major threat to Israel’s or South Korea’s existence even if their functionaries might prefer their off-the-record remarks to various US diplomats to have stayed secret.
The brutal truth is if you are not willing to take casualties, both figuratively and literally, then you are not actually serious about seeking a future with a significantly smaller role for the state vis a vis civil society. The fact that a great many far left groups also support Assange is a telling measure of how few people truly understand the long term implications of what would happen if Assange was able to achieve the perfect end-state… i.e. one where states were more or less unable to informally communicate the way they currently do in order to establish the highly effective networks from which their confluences of interest spring.