Is Julian Assange a villain or a hero? That is the question du jour. From a classical liberal perspective, the answer to that question is far from clear-cut. Good arguments can be produced both for and against WikiLeaks and its release of US diplomatic cables.
On the one hand, the bedrock of classical liberalism is its belief in limited government. Politicians and state bureaucrats, though, are generally disposed to expanding their authority whenever the opportunity presents itself, reflecting that love of power natural to human beings, a love that markedly animates the type of person attracted to public life. From this, it follows that the organs of government must be subject to constant vigilance if government is to remain limited or, at the very least, kept from becoming unlimited. A crucial means of sustaining this vigilance is the unrestricted dissemination of information about the governmentâ€™s activity. After all, the public cannot hold its government to account if it does not know what it is doing. Very much for this reason â€“ indeed, it is the most important reason â€“ democracies guarantee the right to freedom of speech to its citizens. Accordingly, one could maintain that WikiLeaks, by enhancing the transparency of government, enables the public to keep it on a tighter leash.
Also arguing in favor of WikiLeaks is the kind of information that has been divulged in this circumstance. Diplomatic cables help us understand how the government is conducting foreign policy. To a classical liberal, the governmentâ€™s role is properly confined to the defense of the country against foreign attack and the advancement of peace. The incompetent execution, or abuse, of this function, whether in ideological or imperialistic adventures, can do enormous damage to society by squandering resources and wasting peopleâ€™s lives. This makes the governmentâ€™s activities in the international arena a special concern of the public. On this score, though the leaked documents in this case didnâ€™t tell us much that wasnâ€™t already known, WikiLeaks potentially serves a valuable purpose.
On the other hand, the classical liberal must acknowledge that if the government is to successfully achieve its foreign policy objectives, it must be afforded the means of doing so. Inasmuch as peace is among those objectives, classical liberals prefer that the government refrain, unless absolutely necessary, from using force. Theyâ€™d much rather see governments resolve their problems by talking and negotiating with each other â€“ that is, by engaging in diplomacy. But effective diplomacy requires a certain shrewdness and politesse. To negotiate a good deal, a diplomat must exploit the leverage they happen to possess by concealing what their government is ultimately willing to sacrifice. To keep negotiations proceeding smoothly, one must also manage the counterpartyâ€™s pride by showing respect for their character, office, and point of view. All this is compromised if the whole planet is readily able to find out how much one is actually willing to pay to get a deal and what one really thinks about certain foreign officials. From this standpoint, WikiLeaks is a menace to humanity.
Not sure at this point how to weigh these opposing sets of arguments. What I am sure of, however, is that this conundrum demonstrates the richness and complexity of the classical liberal outlook in grappling with public affairs.