When a young Mark Zuckerberg signed his new “Facebook” project with a video game quote — “Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master” – it was unlikely he consciously considered it a warning of how a dictatorial Chinese government could medically endanger the global population.
The young Zuckerberg clearly understood that information is power; power he and other social media moguls now wield. But do they – or do people generally – even now understand or appreciate how control over the flow of information can be abused and imperil human beings in so many ways, when in the hands of unaccountable government officials?
While human rights issues associated with authoritarian regimes is (or certainly should be) a constant moral concern, there is a more practical danger with the control of information under oppressive governments. I wrote last month that the tragedy with Iran’s downing of a civilian aircraft – the result of military incompetence and a breakdown of information between military and civil authorities – was a prelude to a far greater nuclear nightmare should that country ever achieve its goal of possessing nuclear weapons. Now, we see these same mechanisms in China with the outbreak of the Coronavirus.
Even in the best of circumstances, controlling the spread of a previously unknown infectious disease is difficult. It becomes nearly impossible when the disease originates within a tightly controlled, authoritarian society that is image-obsessed and highly averse to having its reputation tarnished anywhere, especially on the international stage. Suddenly, the flow of information about the disease becomes a weapon not in addressing the outbreak, but in protecting those responsible from being held accountable.
Because information about the impact of the virus within China’s nearly impenetrable borders is so sparse, it is next to impossible to determine the extent or trajectory of the threat to the rest of the world. What we do know, however, is that much like the culture of fear within the smaller, but still tightly contained regime in Iran, China’s oppressive rule is rife with mistrust, incompetence, bad decision-making, and failures to act – all prerequisites for yet another cover-up of historic proportions. The Coronavirus outbreak could very well be China’s “Chernobyl,” wherein the obsession with keeping it “their” problem turns the situation into “our” problem.
Beyond the health concerns involving the Coronavirus, China’s conduct should serve as a warning for western governments as well, including our own. Left to its own devices, government – any government – will protect itself first and above all else. China’s communist behemoth is doing that right now, even as health officials in Europe, the United States and elsewhere try to understand what it is doing and limit the damage.
It would be extreme hubris were we to believe ourselves immune from governmental disfunction and abuse simply because we live in a society far more open and transparent than China’s. Our own James Madison, writing 232 years ago in Federalist 51, recognized that government unconstrained by explicit legal mechanisms to limit its exercise of power, would inevitably descend into despotism. We certainly are not on the precipice of despotism in Washington – Nancy Pelosi’s wild fearmongering notwithstanding – but the “mission creep” that infects American bureaucracies from the Pentagon to health facilities across the country, remains a constant threat inching us in that direction.
When a President-elect Donald Trump dared question the authority of the “Deep State,” and it, in turn, reacted by targeting him using existing laws and procedures designed to protect our government from abuse by adversaries, it is not only good public policy, but absolutely essential policy that we identify and question those abuses, correct them, and punish the perpetrators. Every time such corrective action is not taken makes it more likely another such abuse will happen, and more likely it will go undetected.
Neither Madison nor his fellow Federalist writers used the term “Deep State” in their magnificent essays; they were not faced with a “communist dictatorship” by that name. But they knew the beast by other names, in their era and in times past. They had lived — and nearly died – under despotism. The fate of societies that had risen and then crumbled because they lacked the tools to tame the beast, were understood clearly by these wisest of men.
Whether in modern-day Moscow, Tehran or Beijing, or in 18th Century Great Britain, unchecked and unquestioned government power leads to serfdom and ultimately, death. If we today fail to draw corrective lessons from these and other examples, the seeds of our own demise will continue to germinate.