Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneThe Beginning of the End
Posted at 11:30 pm on December 8, 2010, by John W. Payne

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange turned himself over to British authorities, but it actually makes little difference what happens to Assange personally at this point–his victory is already assured. Assange’s situation reminds me of what Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader in Star Wars: “if you strike me down now, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Assange and WikiLeaks are the first to disrupt the monopoly information systems of world governments and powerful corporations in a major way, but they will be far from the last, and I don’t think most people fully understand the implications of this.

One person who seems to have a rough grasp on what WikiLeaks means in the long run is legendary New Leftist Todd Gitlin. Writing in The New Republic, Gitlin compares Assange unfavorably to Daniel Ellsberg, famous for leaking The Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, because Assange is seeking to cause “system-wide cognitive decline” in the government, and Gitlin understands what that means:

To value “system-wide cognitive decline” is to insist that the state is illegitimate. It should not be pressed to do better what it already does poorly. It should not be smarter. Assange says it should not be.

Gitlin clearly disagrees with Assange’s almost wholly negative view of the state, but what I don’t think even Gitlin understands is that this is ultimately not about ideology or value judgments anymore. As information becomes easier to disseminate, secrets will become harder to keep, and it doesn’t matter whether Assange is free or imprisoned, alive or dead, someone will leak information to the public, and the government’s ability to communicate will be further eroded. In short, system-wide cognitive decline will continue apace.

Assange certainly seems to understand what he’s doing, and zunguzungu offers the best summary of Assange’s apparent strategy to undermine the conspiracies that call themselves governments:

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy. As he puts it:

“If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.”

In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve. But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

(That’s an important excerpt, but, seriously, do yourself a favor and go read the whole thing. The rest of this post will still be here when you get back, I promise.)

The politicians seem to be dimly aware of the threat an open flow of information poses to them and their power, but the only means they have of striking back is killing the messenger, literally, but they can’t fight the future. As a side note, if you believe that the politicians like Joseph Lieberman and John McCain who have called for Assange’s head are doing so because they believe it will help the average American or anyone but themselves, you are deeply deluded. One of the new WikiLeaks cables reveals that DynCorp, a Texas-based company, has been using taxpayer dollars to buy child sex slaves for powerful Afghan men. No federal politicians have called for investigations into DynCorp, and I almost guarantee that they won’t. They don’t care that tax money is spent to subsidize child rape; they only care that the public found out about it. And that’s why they must try to silence Assange, because he reveals the government as the callous, incompetent organization that it is.

What Assange is ushering in is nothing short of the death spiral of the nation-state. Nation-states are masters of centralization, and they thrived in an industrial era when centralization seemed to be the most efficient means of administration–both in political and business affairs. However, in an era based upon information, decentralization is a far more powerful method for generating and using important data, for reasons explained by Nobel Prize winning economist F.A. Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” over 65 years ago. Once the government’s monopoly on its own information is cracked by Assange and others, the need and likely even the desire for its centralized bureaucracy vanishes.

I don’t pretend to know what will replace the nation-state as an agent of administration, military power, diplomatic relations, etc. As a libertarian, I hope it’s some kind of polycentric government or competing agencies, but that’s far from guaranteed. Despite fighting my entire adult life against the nation-state, I concede that an even worse system could arise from its ashes. However, I am confident that the central mode of governance in the Western World for over two centuries is now on the wane and will begin to disappear over the next thirty to fifty years. Good riddance.


Filed under: Economic Theory, Internet, Politics
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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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