Glenn Greenwald’s recent piece hailing whistleblowers as the heroes of democracy may finish on a somewhat hyperbolic note (surprise!), but it does make a cogent argument in support of the notion that whistleblowers are doing something quite noble and self-sacrificing. Government employees who blow the whistle are putting their careers and often their freedom at risk to expose what they perceive to be corruption or abuse of power. This is a courageous and principled act, and I respect it.
But I cannot categorically support it. This is not simply because of the risk that it sometimes carries, in terms of its potential to damage ongoing and important intelligence operations and place people in danger, but because it seems to me that whistleblowers are in many cases placing their own convictions ahead of those of their community. This may not be bad, depending, but it may not be all that democratic.
Let me explain.
Bureaucrats perform functions, determined by their role in a bureaucracy, that support certain institutional goals. They run certain systems of state or of government. Those goals and those systems are established and steered by laws. In a tyranny, to subvert a bureaucracy by exposing its secret activities, when those activities are conducted in accordance with the law, is to subvert the tyrant. After all, it’s the tyrant who directs bureaucracies to accomplish certain things and its the tyrant’s interests that accomplishment of these things serve. In a democracy, though, the laws that establish and steer bureaucracies are set according to popular will. When a bureaucratic functionary in a democracy subverts that bureaucracy, the purpose and the effect is to subvert democratic governance itself by substituting personal conscience for communal duty. In other words, when bureaucrats break regulations to undermine lawful government actions, they undermine the law itself, and sometimes the law is democratically determined.
In reality, there are no perfect democracies, and thus there can be good reason to think that the exposure of lawful secret activities, to their detriment, adheres to the principles of democratic governance. But this can only be determined by examining the context to a particular instance of whistleblowing. For example, this recent NSA collections scandal appears to show that the NSA is basically doing precisely what the US congress told it to do, based upon legislation enjoying bipartisan support. Whistleblowing here serves mainly to illuminate to a reasonably democratic polity the consequences of their own bad decisions. This might improve democratic governance, but it also appears to be a situation in which the one of agents that a community has appointed to carry out communally agreed-upon tasks has decided to do their own thing. This is murky moral territory, even as it shows courageous moral conviction.
So while I’m not denying for a moment that whistleblowers are courageous, nor that their actions often serve the public interest – particularly in cases where they expose corruption and abuse – I do think that we should bring a bit of moral nuance and contextual sensitivity into this discussion, and avoid categorically lionising (or demonising) civil servants who spill government secrets.