States are heading into a long period of rough weather. This will make leaders more hostile to policies that are essential for open societies to thrive.

Four challenges to the open society

Text for a keynote address at the International Conference of Information Commissioners, Manchester, September 20, 2017

It’s a pleasure to speak to this, the fifteenth International Conference of Information Commissioners. I also had the honor of addressing the fifth conference in Wellington, New Zealand in November 2007. This caused me to look back at the news in November 2007:

The Federal Reserve promised that there would be “no recession in the United States in the foreseeable future.” Central bankers said that “the U.S. economy had proved quite resilient” and predicted the effects of a recent downturn in the housing sector would be “modest.”

All was calm in politics as well. The Gallup Poll reported that Hilary Clinton was likely to win the Democratic nomination for president and defeat the Republican candidate, Rudy Giuliani, in the 2008 presidential election.

Meanwhile in Britain, a writer for the Guardian suggested that Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, would win an unprecedented fourth consecutive term for the Labour government. His predecessor, Tony Blair, was “heavyweight favorite” to become the first full-time president of the European Council, after the just-signed Lisbon Treaty went into effect in January 2009.

It was still possible to be upbeat about democracy and transparency in the autumn of 2007. Political scientists reported that the number of democratic states had tripled since the 1970s. Experts predicted that China would also move toward democracy within one or two decades.

In fact, China has just published a national freedom of information regulation in 2007. Thirty-five other countries also adopted national FOI rules over the preceding decade. In 2007, most of the world’s population lived in countries with national FOI rules.

In Britain, the FOI law was less than two years old. Prime Minister Brown described it as “landmark legislation” and promised to provide “the freest possible flow of information between government and the people.”

This quick trip down memory lane reminds us about how quickly the world can change, and also how much the world actually has changed over the last decade. I want to talk about the nature of those changes, and changes likely to come, and the implications for people who care about information rights.

As I’ve already noted, there was great progress on governmental openness in the 1990s and early 2000s. In retrospect, though, people who cared about openness had the advantage of very favorable conditions:

  • The world was largely at peace. The cold war had ended. Some people thought that competition between great powers was a thing of the past. In the advanced democracies, crime rates were declining. The number of terror attacks was dropping as well.
  • The world was also prospering. After years of stagnation and confusion in the 1970s and 1980s, growth revived in much of the world in the 1990s. China and India set themselves on the path toward free markets and rapid growth.
  • As I’ve already noted, this was also a good time for democracy and human rights. Some scholars even wrote about the “triumph of Western liberalism.”
  • Finally: we seemed to be living in an era of open borders. The flow of goods, money and people between countries increased dramatically. Some people suggested that the era of the nation-state was over, that national governments simply did not matter much anymore.

Under such conditions, it was relatively easy for national leaders to be generous in adopting laws that favored openness. They could afford to be relaxed. Leaders did not see any major threats to the safety or prosperity of their states.

Clearly, circumstances changed after 2008. The world found itself more difficult and dangerous terrain. Indeed, there are some people who have been deeply alarmed by this. They worry that the centuries-long project of advancing democracy and human rights is in great jeopardy.

I take a more temperate position. We are not facing the end of the world. We need to recognize that the period of the late 1990s and early 2000s was unusual by historical standards. Now we are returning to a period that is difficult but not unprecedented. We are returning to an era of politics as usual.

That is a kind of politics in which policymakers worry constantly about threats to security and prosperity. As a result, they are skeptical about many policies that are critical to the health of an open society. This means we must be prepared be fight vigorously in defense of openness in coming years.

I will be reckless and make a prediction about four major threats that policymakers will be preoccupied with in the next few decades.

The first is terrorism. Some people say that we are in the midst of an unprecedented global epidemic of terrorism. This is not quite right. There were two similar surges in international terrorism in the twentieth century. And it is not exactly an epidemic. In the US and western Europe, the number of terror attacks is still lower than in the 1970s.

Having said this, terror attacks pose an obvious threat to openness. One aim of such attacks is to provoke an over-reaction. Too often, politicians take the bait: by declaring states of emergency or all-out wars against terrorism, unduly increasing the power of security agencies, expanding surveillance, tightening border controls, and casting suspicion on minority groups.

The second challenge is the revival of competition between great powers. Recent news has emphasized growing tensions between the United States and Russia or North Korea. This is a distraction from the bigger problem, which is rising tensions between the United States and China. The Chinese economy is already ten times larger than Russia’s. Chinese leaders are using their new-found wealth to expand their military and global influence, just as the United States itself did a century ago.

The revival of great power tensions could threaten openness in several ways. We have already seen signs of a revival the “garrison mentality” that shaped American policy in the early years of the Cold War. This means a renewed military buildup, fears about the infiltration and subversion of American institutions, and a drive to tighten controls over the flows of people, goods and money between countries.

The third challenge is economic inequality that is driven by automation and the advent of jobless economic growth. We could handle this challenge by a reinvention of policies on work, income and social benefits. But there are skeptics who worry that we will follow a darker path, by accepting inequality as a reality and building walls between the rich and poor. This would be a world of gated communities, zero-tolerance policing, and restricted public services. In this world, democratic institutions would be curtailed so that the poor cannot demand their fair share.

The fourth and final challenge is climate change. As the headlines already show, we are heading into an era of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, conflict over access to fresh water, pandemics, and forced migrations.

Again, the question is how we shall handle this. We could avoid the worst effects by planning ahead. Pessimists think that we will lapse into a pattern of crisis government. Power would be concentrated within the executive branch as leaders stumble from one disaster to another. Police and military forces would be built up to maintain internal peace. Rich countries would tighten border controls to block migration and the spread of disease. And as international order breaks down, rich countries would engage more frequently in military action abroad to preserve access to oil and other resources.

You will see a common thread. We have four challenges that could provoke similar responses, if handled badly. These responses include the buildup of executive power, stronger and more autonomous security agencies, more pervasive surveillance and social control, restriction of civil liberties and social opportunities, reinforcement of borders and internal walls, and cultivation of mutual suspicion and distrust.

It is also important to recognize that we will be dealing with these four challenges at the same time. As a result, there will a temptation to handle all four problems in similar ways. A government that talks tough about one of these problems is more likely to talk tough about the others as well. There is a risk that we will see the emergence of a new conventional wisdom, a new zeitgeist, that is preoccupied with order and social control.

This new zeitgeist could do real damage to the ideal of the open society. The possible responses that I have described are generally hostile to the free flow of people and ideas, and to movements that challenge the status quo. These are also responses that reinforce the power of the state. I doubt that anyone will write another book about the death of the nation-state in the next twenty years.

It is not inevitable that politics should unfold in this way. Leaders and citizens can choose to go one way or another. We are going to be engaged in a long battle over big ideas, and the outcome of that battle will determine the shape of laws and institutions. Advocates of openness need to make the case for policies that preserve the ideal of the open society.

We will want to make three critical points. The first is the need to respect human rights. Of course, national security and public order are important. But we should not surrender those conditions that make life worth living.

The second point is that tradeoffs between security and openness are often avoidable. It is possible to maintain societies that are secure and open through careful planning, and policies that are measured and deliberate. Without planning, leaders are more likely to engage in impulsive and extreme policies.

The third point appeals to the self-interest of political leaders. In an important sense, openness is essential to security. We want to build societies that are resilient and in the long-run, that have the capacity to adjust fluidly to rapidly changing circumstances. This kind of long-run adaptability is only possible if we encourage the flow of people and the interchange of ideas. Closed societies, societies that concentrate power, build walls, and cultivate distrust, are stable in the short run but brittle in the long run.

Now let me perform my obligation, as a Canadian, of forcing some Canadian content into this talk. 2017 is a year of anniversaries. It is the 150th anniversary of the founding of two countries, Canada and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The question in 1867: which one would survive? The smart money was on Austria-Hungary. Why? Because the emperor was strong enough to maintain order, while the Canadian central government was weak. Obviously, the pundits were wrong in the long-run. One system was flexible enough to survive, while the other was not. We can draw a similar lesson from the Soviet Union, which would have celebrated its 100th anniversary this October, had it not collapsed after a desperate grasp for glasnost and perestroika.

All of this might seem abstract. There is a temptation to focus on the details of laws and regulations and how they are implemented. But the success or failure of policies often depends on the larger public mood. We already see many intellectuals and politicians making the argument that our societies have become too open, that we actually suffer from too much transparency. This campaign against openness is likely to intensify in coming years. We must be prepared for this. We will need to explain how openness is essential, not just to advance human welfare, but to assure the long-term resilience of states themselves.