David Brin’s case for fourfold openness and transparency

Excerpted from David Brin:

“An overall trend toward greater openness will be essential to our survival as individuals, nations, and even as a species.

We have bet our lives, and our children’s, on the continued success of a civilization that provides our material needs better than any other. One that has inarguably fostered greater levels of lawful peace—both per capita and for billions worldwide—than any predecessor. It also engendered both social mobility and repudiation of prejudice to a degree that—if woefully unfinished—no prior society ever matched. Nor could any combination of others equal our rate of discovery and new learning.

Even the way we are self-critical and unsatisfied—angrily rejecting braggart paragraphs like the one above and focusing instead on further improvements—even that reflex is consistent with a civilization that has real potential. One that would have stunned our ancestors.

Underlying all of this is the positive-sum notion that a competitive society doesn’t have to be strewn with ruined losers. In some kinds of games, one player might win more than others—e.g., getting rich—but the outcome leaves everybody way ahead, even the “defeated.” That may sound absurdly sunny. Cheating abounds and capitalism always teeters toward the old pit of feudalism. Still, enlightenment civilization’s major decision-making components— markets, democracy, science and justice—really have delivered positive-sum outcomes a lot of the time. We are living proof.

Here’s the key point: All four of those human problem-solving arenas—markets, democracy, science and justice—flourish only in light, when all parties get to see. When darkness prevails, they wither and die.

Specifically: Open markets depend on maximizing the number of knowing buyers, sellers and competitors. (Adam Smith despised the secret conniving of oligarchs and blamed them—not socialists—for market failures.) Democracy only functions well when vigorously engaged in by knowing and curious citizens.

Our third and fourth pillars—science and justice—cannot function in darkness at all. These four backbone components count on the same, core innovation—reciprocal accountability—to foster creative competition and to check our natural human penchant for cheating.

If 4,000 years of history demonstrate one thing, it is that you will cheat, if there isn’t plenty of light to stop you. Yes, I’m talking about you. And me. The obvious conclusion? Anyone who demands extended secrecy should face a burden of proof. (See Note 1 below)

Now, let’s be clear. The Enlightenment is about pragmatism, and no purist dogma is ever 100 percent right, even transparency. For example, one topic calling for negotiated compromise is personal privacy. And few claim that a military can function entirely in the open. Not yet, at least. (See Note 2)

The WikiLeaks Case exposes several more areas where limits to transparency are open to intense debate.

So here’s the question: To what extent do governments have a need or right to keep secrets from citizens? And who should decide when government leaders have crossed the line?

My answer is default openness, with a steadily rising burden of proof for institutional secrecy—a pragmatic but unswerving movement toward a world of accountability and light. Nevertheless, it is a burden of proof that can be met! Not all secrecy—even government secrecy—is automatically evil.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prescribes a different answer: zero tolerance. Immediate and radical transparency. Moreover, the decision to reveal government secrets can be made ad hoc and peremptorily by an individual. One who never voted for or against—or paid taxes to—the government in question. “

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