making local government more ethical

Moral Clarity VII - Confidential Information

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts inspired by reading Susan Neiman’s book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (Princeton, 2008). Neiman’s discussion of Daniel Ellsberg, the government official who let us know about the Pentagon Papers, shows the effect that access to confidential information has on government officials. It’s very similar to the effect of power.
    First, you feel exhilarated by access to information you never even knew existed.  Almost as quickly, you feel like a fool:  for having analyzed these subjects for years without a clue about information this crucial, for having worked daily with people who did have access and kept the secrets so well. But once you get used to your new access to whole libraries of hidden information, you are aware of the fact that you have it and others don't — and view anyone else as a fool to whom you, in turn, are bound to lie. ... You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in a particular area.
We tend to think of this problem occurring at the federal level, with access to classified information. But the same thing happens at the local level. High-level officials have access to people and information others have little or no knowledge of. When citizens come before them, many officials hardly listen, because they know how ignorant the citizens are. Special knowledge can be one more way to justify acting against the public interest, because only those who know all the facts have the right to say what is best for the public.

Special knowledge does not justify this sort of arrogance and contempt. Those who have it have an obligation to inform and teach the public. An ignorant public, a public that does not understand, is a public that cannot participate effectively. Secrecy, and the contempt it often breeds, undermines democratic participation.

Other blog posts in this series:
Reason and Ideals
Intentions
Ethics Environments
Self-Interest
The Categorical Imperative and Exceptionalism
Independent Ethics Enforcement

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org
203-230-2548