In my genuinely very interesting class on Administrative Law, my professor remarked recently that it is intrinsic to democracies to have limits on how much personal or private information a government was entitled to, and as a snarky aside noted “I’m sure that guy in North Korea can get whatever information he wants, whenever he wants.”

            I’m less certain! It seems to me that there is a certain trade-off to the state between being able to access reliable information about citizens and the strength of rule-of-law that would prevent the state from actually doing anything malicious with said information. Just think about what “the government” (not really one monolithic thing, but anyway) knows about you from the basic activities of filing a tax return and applying for a driver’s license – your occupation, income, marital status, name of spouse number of children, address, assets and investment income, your height, weight, eye color, hair color, your picture, your sex…my God, they know everything! Yet there are astonishingly few instances of the IRS, for example, being directed to use its information-gathering powers to target enemies of the government, and in those few instances when the IRS has misbehaved blowback has been extreme. And let’s not get into what information the government is permitted to extract from private firms. Forgetting about the whole NSA-fustercluck for just a moment, the democratic government of the United States can legally access all kinds of information about its citizenry yet those very same laws that empower the government bind it when acting upon that information.

            Now think about Kim Jong-un. In theory he has tremendous power to extract information from his subjects, but in practice he is likely surrounded by a tight cabal of advisors and agents who heavily manage the flow of information to the dictator. And even if he were to employ independent agents (as I’m sure he does) they have their own interests. Given his power to execute those who give him bad news, nobody has an interest in giving him bad news; and given that the media within the state is controlled by these same agents and it’s unclear how much external media he has access to, he has surprisingly little easy access to reliable information about the country he nominally has absolute power over.

            This isn’t original (see Plato), but it is worth considering in our ever-more-information-centric society. And since I haven’t brought it up in a while, there is a tremendous literary portrayal of this phenomenon in Cersei’s chapters in A Feast for Crows where her attempts to exercise greater and greater power as the Queen Regent result in her being surrounded by aloyal agents who are more interested in furthering their own interests and Cersei wielding almost no power and knowing almost nothing reliable outside the walls of King’s Landing.

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