August 2, 2012 11:22AM

Civil Egalitarianism

This morning’s newspaper brings news of government officials seeking to punish individuals who provided relevant information to the public. In this case, the officials are seeking individuals who leaked secret information about national security issues.

Here’s the problem with these investigations: disclosing the source of the leaks will lead to retaliation by government officials against the leaker which in turn will lead to fewer leaks in the future and less information for the public. As the New York Times puts it, “Investigations into Security Leaks is Casting Chill on Coverage.”

Yet the editorial board of that same newspaper has long supported public disclosure of the sources of campaign spending which can lead to retaliation from government officials against the source of the spending, thereby discouraging future spending on speech and in the end, less information for the public.

Why the differences in perspective? The cynical among us might think the costs of disclosing the sources of national security leaks fall on the media (above all, the New York Times) while the costs of disclosing campaign spending fall on people who compete with the media for public attention. But I am not so cynical to think the media are so narrowly self‐​interested.

Media folks may also think that retaliation is much more likely from national security officials than from officials concerned about winning elections. But why? The incentives seem at least equally strong in both cases. If anything, suppressing speech seems more directly related to election outcomes than keeping official secrets. How many votes did Wikileaks cost the Obama administration in 2010?

A “business model” explanation also comes up short. The media does depend on national leakers for information to repackage and sell. So they are protecting their inputs. The media also repackage disclosed campaign spending information. But such information would be much more valuable to the media if it were secret in the first place. Has anyone received a Pulitzer for writing yet another story about SuperPACs?

Consider this alternative explanation for the difference. Egalitarianism is the view that politics should be about helping the oppressed and harming the oppressor. In the national security context, the oppressor class comprises military and national security officials. They are icons of inequality working as they do in hierarchical organizations wasting public money that could be redistributed to the truly deserving. In campaign finance, the oppressors are business people — i.e. “the rich and powerful” — who have unequal wealth. Disclosing sources in the national security case helps the oppressor and increases inequality. Not disclosing sources in the campaign finance case has the same effect. The question is not what the government does but rather its effect on equality.

I conclude we should not call use the broad term “civil libertarian” to refer to everyone concerned about government limiting information to the public. Instead, we should focus on the purposes and values that inform political action. Media folks are largely “civil egalitarians.” Those concerned about liberty from government are properly called “civil libertarians.”

Why does this matter? Naturally I would be happy if “civil egalitarians” would become, by my lights, more consistent and thus, “civil libertarians.” Even if they do not, both sides should keep in mind when working together on politics that theirs is coalition of circumstances and not a coalition of common purpose.