Loose Lips Sink Ships of State


Predicting devolution into demagoguery, Plato compared the democratic state to a ship — “the captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarreling about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless” — and his story sounds unfortunately familiar. The events that have transpired since the election neatly fit the narrative, as the ship slowly sinks from leak after leak; even a rising tide cannot lift those boats with holes in the hull.

This is not a discussion of the leaking of classified information. Indeed, the story there is clear cut: if not protected by whistleblower laws, the leak is illegal, and if it seriously compromises national security, the leak is immoral. Nor is this a discussion of the leaking of information by the administration itself. Any half-decent Press Secretary knows that dropping a tip to the WaPost White House Correspondent can be an effective communications strategy. A sanctioned leak is merely an alternative (to adopt an administration-preferred word) press release. The following comments exclusively deal with leaks of the sort that disseminate drafts of upcoming executive orders or allege that the President spends most of the day haunting the White House in a bathrobe. Damaging? Yes. Damning? No.

Every administration tries to prevent leaks, and each is unsuccessful, but the volume of information released within the past month and a half is exceptional. Comparable disclosures could be achieved only if every bureaucrat in the federal government had such twitchy, tweeting thumbs as Mr. Trump himself. It is not difficult to understand their motivations; complaining of an incompetent or idiotic boss is a time-honored American tradition, but when that boss is the President of the United States, otherwise-innocuous whining takes on somewhat of a national flavor. At that level, the trend is troubling.

The ineptitude of a President, whether real or imagined, should not be such that dissension manifest to this extent. Further, a President should not be so incapable of inspiring loyalty even among top aides, particularly when he is obsessive about loyalty. But both of these tenets were tossed out the window and into the thorny Rose Garden turf when Mr. Trump took the Oath of Office.

So the ship of state now finds itself in rough waters. The crisis, though, will surely not be solved by what Plato characterized as the “drunken pleasure-cruise” that results when power is seized from the rightful captain. A negligent captain is no excuse for a negligent crew and indeed necessitates the opposite. The bureaucracy should work to plug the leaks, not create them.

There is certainly an argument to be made for the public’s right to know, but during no other administration did the news print and broadcast such lurid details of the inner workings of the White House; nobody complained then that democracy was impinged upon. The public has the right to know policy, not the informal procedure or personal details of the Presidency.

And it is not as if the insider information is being put to productive use. I do not dispute that the details are amusing, but the laughs come at the expense of serious policy discussions. There are only so many column inches and on-air minutes, and when they are used to address the content of the latest series of leaks or, worse yet, the number of leaks occurring (guilty as charged on the hypocrisy!), a different issue goes undiscussed. The public discourse is shaped by the media. Some of the bureaucrats occupy themselves with collecting information and contacting reporters, while others turn to tracking down and penalizing the first group. The President, erratic enough when calm, starts rampaging through hallowed halls. Someone then leaks that he is angry, and the vicious cycle begins once again. Meanwhile, foreign leaders, like the Australian Prime Minister, are forced to deal with a public hearing on what they had in good faith considered private conversation, taking time out of their busy schedules as well.

Leaking blows off bureaucratic steam, but if the situation in government is bad enough to warrant this, it would better to let it build and manifest more dramatically. Mass resignations or open letters to the President would send a clearer and more worthwhile message to the administration and the public.

It is a flagrant violation of basic bureaucratic discipline to leak, and it will likely lead to a downsizing of bureaucratic power. Mr. Trump has already shown a proclivity for avoiding properly pursuing policy through the interagency process; the drafting of his initial travel-ban without the consultation or cooperation of the Department of Defense or Department of State is merely one example. To provide him any excuse to further restrict the power of the bureaucracy is to provide him an excuse to further consolidate power within his own hand-picked ranks, leading to laws and decisions that are both more extreme and more hastily adopted. In a sense, the bureaucracy is (like the press) an oft-ignored but deeply important check on executive control; further leaks would threaten this role.

In Plato’s view, smooth sailing comes only when the philosopher rules. Mr. Trump is certainly no philosopher, but neither will a philosopher be placed in power by a flood of leaks which results in a lack of sober discussion, no substantive bureaucratic opposition, and an inappropriate policy-making process.

Here’s hoping that government employees get it together, so that the term ‘ship of state’ can reassume the triumphalist tenor of Longfellow’s poem and Churchill’s World War II address instead of serving as a metaphor for democracy-doubting.

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