Over a month after their release, the flood of wikileaks documents continues to generate commentary and analysis over their content, and more importantly their effects on diplomacy and geopolitics. There also remains the subject as to whether or not states implicated in the leaks (namely the US) will attempt to take punitive action against Assange himself. Buried beneath all of this however is the question that so many of us have sought to avoid and one which I have been pondering of late: in this age of soft power and free flow of information, what is the true coercive role of government?
Every state requires an aspect of coercion to function, as anyone who has taken an introductory class on politics can tell you. And while some may balk at the sinister sound of such a concept; we all must remember that this is legitimate coercion, and the ability to wield it is granted to government through a comprehensive legal framework. We not only allow state institutions like the police to use coercion, but expect it for the sake of order and stability. The problem is that once the coercive arm of government has been empowered, through a constitution or something similar, its responsibilities are highly static. The responsibilities of the police are largely the same today as they were a hundred year ago. The tools and methods may have changed but the mandate has not. The problem is that the legal power of government remains the same while the world changes around it.
It does not take an academic to notice how much global realities have been realigned in the past twenty years. The internet has changed the world in a real way, as evidenced by the fact that a simple data file can radically alter the alignment of global politics. The dilemma before modern states is how to adjust policy and procedure to reflect these new realities. The problem we face is if the handling of these new considerations resides purely with government, we the run the risk of descending into tyranny. This is not tyranny in the dystopian Orwellian sense, but rather Locke’s view of the concept where tyranny is the simply act of government exceeding the authority granted to it by society, and beginning the transition to illegitimate coercion. This of course is a slippery slope, where what are initially viewed as benign indulgences can escalate into truly monstrous abuses of power.
Prevention of this will require a radical re-examination of first principles by both the state and society. Just as Madison, Adams, and the other architects of the constitution based their construction on their times, we will need to determine the true political and social realities we are surrounded by and from there decide what the government can and cannot do. As much as some try to deny it, the age that gave birth to our democracy is dead and gone. The throne once held by hard power has been taken by its softer counterpart. Blogs can often produce more change than bombs, and few can deny Einstein’s assertion that compound interest is indeed the most powerful force in the universe. While I can’t speculate as to the form the coercive arm of government will take in this new world, I do know that the longer we wait to determine it, the less of an ability we will have to influence it.