Wikileaks as Distributed Governance

Hannah Arendt begins The Human Condition with an account of a world in which “speech has lost its power,” where scientific omnipotence is achieved through the manipulation of mathematical equations whose sense escapes even the mathematicians’ capacity to intuit, and the decision to unleash destructive nuclear powers has been foisted upon non-scientists who are even more ignorant than the scientists of the dark sorceries they control, struck mute by the unprecedented scale of the esoteric annihilation of atomic physics. The crucial connection between communication and comprehension has been severed, and the proper order in speech and silence has been tragically reversed. In the pages that follow, Arendt supplies and elaborates a hierarchical account of human activities, where the uncommunicative aspects of Arendt’s picture of the dystopian modern world are supplanted with a romantic sense of self-assertion and the achievements and honors of public life. Speech is impotent, but it cannot be restored to power through more talking. Rather, this dumb incomprehension can only be corrected by mending the world so that “men in the plural” can again “experience meaningfulness… and make sense to each other and themselves.”

I mention this because of a comment from John D, who summarizes the utopianism of the Irish futurist Johnny Ryan:

his suggestion is that increasing transparency is going to be an inevitable consequence of the internet. And that the Wikileaks programme is really only the first step in the transition to a new form of distributed governance. In other words, a step towards a kind of large-scale participative democracy which would have been impractical in previous eras due to geographical and communicative impediments. The internet has removed those impediments and so the traditional (representative) system of governance-by-elites can now be supplanted/attacked. He thinks that this, in effect, is what is now happening and that we will be witnessing the death throes of governance-by-elites over the coming years.

(And who knows? this distributed system of governance might lead to better decision-making for reasons advanced by, say, epistemic democrats, i.e. Jury theorems etc – although obviously such theorems are built on questionable assumptions.)

This may all be a little pie-in-the-sky. It certainly raises plenty of important questions: Are the distributed systems of governance going to operate within traditional nation-state borders? What about the truly authoritarian regimes? Can they be dragged, kicking and screaming into this new reality? What about the poor who lack access to the same ICT-infrastructure?

But perhaps it also explains the attractions of transparency to some and can lead to new arguments in favour of (and against) organisations such as Wikileaks.

Here’s Ryan:

where I think we are going in the longer term, beyond transparency and more representative candidates, is toward a system of network governance that gives the public much more responsibility in decision making. For the first time in history we have an infrastructure for consensus decision making among large numbers of people (think Wikipedia) that may allow us to radically reform how we govern ourselves.

This may well be where we’re headed, but I’m skeptical that this will be better than what we had. Evidence suggests that the governance dynamic for anonymous public editing doesn’t scale well or democratically. In any case, it’s a governance problem distinct from the problems facing states and non-encyclopedic institutions.

Steve Maloney and I have written about the problem of existential threats in fair epistemic proceduralism here. Other issues include Lawrence Lessig’s arguments in “Against Transparency” and Cass Sunstein’s arguments about Group Polarization in 2.0 (more here).

Modest Sites

My latest experiment is to try to write my public policy posts at a new collaborative blog Modest Sites and preserve this blog for more philosophical fare. The title comes from Sheldon Wolin’s classic work of political theory, Politics and Vision:

The power of a democratic politics lies in a multiplicity of modest sites dispersed among local governments and institutions under local control.

My collaborator, Steve Maloney, is a political scientist, so hopefully the new space will generate some good dialog.

  • I’ve just posted a discussion of “Reparations for Slavery in the Twenty-first Century.” If you’re interested in that topic, come on over!
  • If you’re interested in small-r republican politics, institutional design, or optimistic political theory, let me know: we could use some more collaborators.

Epistemic Institutional Design and the Roman Catholic Church, Part One

The Catholic Church has been having a rough time of it lately. In a series of posts, I want to take up some of the implications of this trouble for epistemic institutional design, that is, for building institutions that ‘get it right.’

First, some background: what has previously been a primarily American problem of sexual abuse and coverups has come home to roost in Europe, including a case that involves the Pope. In 1980, the current Pope, then Archbishop Ratzinger, was involved in the reassignment of a priest who was suspected of forcing an 11 year old boy to have sex with him. The priest, “Father H,” was sent to therapy in Munich, and later reassigned to a small town where his pastoral duties allowed him to again engage in the sexual abuse of children, for which he was finally convicted in 1986. For his second known offense, the priest received a suspended sentence and a 4,000 DM fine. While the Pope denies awareness of the reassignment to pastoral service, he admits that he was aware of the first therapeutic rather than criminal response to Father H ‘s actions. At present, it’s not clear whether the investigating civil authority was aware of the first 1980 case or Father H’s therapy and reassignment.

Obviously, many are troubled by the possibility that the current Pope could be implicated in the sex abuse scandals. I know many older Catholics have been absolutely devastated that the Church hierarchy failed them in this way, and now feel that they’ve been betrayed and feel bereft of legitimate moral and spiritual guidance. Still others seem to glory in the Church’s failures, in part because the hierarchy has been exposed as sanctimonious. It’s worth noting that the US has long had a strong anti-Catholic streak, which erupts at times like these. In this sense, much of the acrimony is merely a pale shadow of the European wars of religion.

But as I said, I’m interested in the epistemic issues here, specifically, the impact of infallibility. In my view, infallibility is the fault line that runs through this entire controversy, and the Roman Catholic Church can’t respond adequately or appropriately to the problem without risking a fundamental doctrine.

There are three issues, which I will try to unpack: first, pedophilia and pathology; second, punishment and sovereignty; third, public relations and liability. In each case, I believe the Roman Catholic Church is committed to a distinct and problematic theory of investigation, inquiry, and institutional design that puts them at odds with the best practices of democratic criminal justice systems. This is due to the accretion of epistemic institutional improvements that the Catholic Church has refused to implement since the Protestant Reformation.

First, what constitutes pedophilia is different for the Catholic Church than for most countries. Children over the age of 11 are not considered victims in the same way that younger children would be, and attraction to adolescents, particularly adolescent boys, is treated as a particular brand of homosexual desire, called ephebophilia rather than pedophilia.

Second, the Catholic Church still thinks of itself as a distinct legal entity, and the Vatican forms a kind of cosmopolitan sovereign state, which reserves the right to deal with its priests according to canon law rather than criminal law. Within the Church, the emphasis on penance and reconciliation sometimes fails to achieve the ends that a more retributive criminal punishment system can manage, especially in the vindication of victims. Most nation states are willing to accept this challenge to their sovereignty in ordinary ‘white collar’ criminal matters, but this doesn’t apply in instances like child sexual abuse where deeply held moral intuitions diverge in outrage.

Third, there is the matter of the civil tort system, which can challenge national branches of the Catholic Church and win large sums of money when the Church bureaucracy is found to have been complicit in hiding crimes, and the threat that these scandals will undermine the Church’s moral authority with its congregants, who are also its funders through tithing.

As I’ve said, each of these specific institutional challenges is ultimately reducible to a Catholic refusal to adopt epistemic institutional reforms that would make it better able to align its theory of autonomy and consent with the common sense, to share criminal investigations with secular nation states, and to publicly investigate corruption and abuse using the full gamut of modern policing techniques. In each case, the Catholic Church is hamstrung by its theory of infallibility, which requires the institutions that constitute Catholicism to remain committed to both clearly doctrinal metaphysical matters (the assumption of Mary, or the nature of Christ, for instance) and a series of values and moral judgments that the rest of the world has continued to deliberate. This puts the Church at odds with both its parishioners and its own understanding of the role of public reason, by which moral judgments are understood as extending from God-given reason. In short, the Catholic Church faces what Jürgen Habermas called a legitimacy crisis, as a part of a series of other crises in its internal governance and external relations. In future posts, I will address the specific formulation of this crisis in its failure to review and amend its theory of autonomy and responsibility to raise the age of consent.

(Crossposted with a new collaborative blog I’m working on with Steve Maloney.)