Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Forbes has published an interview with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and the big newsbreak is this:

The founder of whistle-blower website WikiLeaks plans to release tens of thousands of internal documents from a major U.S. bank early next year, Forbes Magazine reported on Monday....

Asked what he wanted to be the result of the disclosure, he replied: "I'm not sure. It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume." ...

Like Kevin Drum, I see the likelihood of more good coming from this than from the current batch of leaks, but I think Digby is right as well -- Assange alludes to Enron, and she says, in reference to that:

Remember, they arrested Enron's big shots Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, but it didn't mean a thing to the Big Money Boyz. They carried on without losing a step. Its something to think about.


My problem with Assange's worldview is this: he seems to believe that everything that's kept secret is kept secret for a sinister reason, and that the most sinister stuff is likely to be whatever is kept secret. It doesn't seem to occur to him that an awful lot of what's malignant in modern life is legal, is traceable (and has been traced), and is hiding in plain sight. And he doesn't seem to grasp that, for instance, it's not always a bad thing that people are frank in their communications with one another -- it's OK for diplomats to express opinions they can't express publicly. The nasty contempt expressed by some Enron employees was a secret worth revealing, but it was a symptom, not the disease itself.

Oddly, Assange seems to believe what he believes because he's under the sway of theories of capitalist purity, as he explains elsewhere in the interview:

Would you call yourself a free market proponent?

Absolutely. I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets. Having lived and worked in many countries, I can see the tremendous vibrancy in, say, the Malaysian telecom sector compared to U.S. sector. In the U.S. everything is vertically integrated and sewn up, so you don't have a free market. In Malaysia, you have a broad spectrum of players, and you can see the benefits for all as a result.

How do your leaks fit into that?

To put it simply, in order for there to be a market, there has to be information. A perfect market requires perfect information.

There's the famous lemon example in the used car market. It's hard for buyers to tell lemons from good cars, and sellers can't get a good price, even when they have a good car.

By making it easier to see where the problems are inside of companies, we identify the lemons. That means there's a better market for good companies. For a market to be free, people have to know who they're dealing with....

It's not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I've learned from many. But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I'm a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free....

So Assange really seems to believe the libertarian notion that markets could function with perfect efficiency if there could be perfect transparency. And he seems to believe that about governments as well.

But lack of transparency isn't the only problem these systems have. We know a hell of a lot, for instance, about how we got into our current financial morass -- bookshelves groan with analyses -- and yet we don't have the national will to punish the guilty. Yes, I know the public is disgrunted and it's the government that's failing to do the punishing, but the people aren't out in the streets demanding that punishment be meted out; the midterms didn't turn on promises to get tough on the malfeasors (or on, say, BP, whose most prominent defender, Joe Barton, was reelected earlier this month).

Some of what Assange releases is good for the public to know, some isn't, and some -- I'd say quite a bit of the current document dump -- actually harms the public good. But Assange thinks all secret knowledge is good to know, and he seems to think all evil stems from secrecy. And that's just not right.

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