Almost as if in response to my post about why Edward Snowden was bad at whistleblowing, Acemoglu and Robinson say, basically, that’s a good thing:

In economics, it is often important to distinguish behavior on and off the equilibrium path. Certain actions, which would have otherwise arisen, are off the equilibrium path because of the reactions or the punishments that they would trigger.

The truly useful role of whistle-blowing may be what we don’t see, the off-the-equilibrium path behavior of the US and other governments. What we see is bad enough. But without the threat of whistle-blowing, by albeit perhaps fame-seeking, flawed adventurers, much worse might be taking place.

If so, what we see on the equilibrium path might be the type of whistle-blowing that looks mundane and perhaps self-serving. But it may be precisely this sort of whistle-blowing that discourages even worse violations of privacy and more malicious cover-ups by the alphabet soup of US agencies not clearly accountable to anybody.

Insightful, probably correct, and implicitly a novel application of Bastiat’s brilliant-when-not-being-tortured-by-glibertarians manifesto about the seen and the unseen. However, my rejoinder, without quoting at length, would be to point to Aaron Bady’s now-seminal post about the ideological foundations of Wikileaks. To inadequately summarize, Bady deliniates Assange’s theory as follows:

1. The state is an authoritarian conspiracy.
2. Conspiracies are fundamentally both made and unmade by information.
3. Disrupting the conspiracy’s control over information, especially internal information, will fracture and eventually collapse the conspriacy.

Now, the thing is, you don’t necessarily have to agree with Assange’s ideological premises to believe his actions could have the intended effect; that is, that increasing the leak-risk of government operations, regardless of the justification, legally or morally, of those government actions or the secrecy thereof, will push governing institutions towards being closed, brittle, internally fragmented, and impotent.

Now, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are very different phenomena; the forme selectively related a self-curated set of documents designed to blow the whistle about a specific, noxious, and possibly illegal government program, whereas the latter indiscriminately released vast amounts of information as essentially an attack on the state itself. But ironically, they could be largely similar in their effect on government operations – that is, to impair the government’s ability to govern. This may not be a bad thing, entirely, but it may not be a good thing, entirely, either – it is not so easy to isolate an attack on security state abuses from attacks on the state, period. And the willingness, or at least the possibility, of ideologues, grudge-nursers, and the mentally-ill to enact the latter undermine the attempt of even the least egotistical do-gooders from doing the former.

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