“our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
— Thomas Jefferson, January 28, 1786
I had an interesting conversation about quotes by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, third president of the USA) and current politics a few days ago, and that prompted me to do some more research and to write about things I noticed. Before anyone asks: In the original letters I’m citing here, Jefferson uses lowercase letters at the beginning of the sentences, so I kept it that way.
“the way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. but I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
— Thomas Jefferson, January 16, 1787 (emphasis added, easier-to-read transcript)
In a democracy, the government should do what the people want it to do. However, people need to know what is actually going on to form an opinion on what should be done. Today Jefferson probably wouldn’t write “newspapers” but rather “media”, and “every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them” sounds a lot like “free and unrestricted Internet access for everyone”, including access to all government data. He is confident that the people will do the right thing if they can form an informed opinion, so much that in case of conflict a well-informed public is more important than having any government at all.
It is essential to understand that in the first quote Jefferson was talking about insults and false claims in the press. He knows that this freedom can be abused, and yet he says that the freedom of the press “cannot be limited without being lost.” This is an absolute statement, not a recommendation to be careful. Censorship must never be permitted if you don’t want to lose freedom itself.
“[…] under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. this is a true picture of Europe. cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. if once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you & I, & Congress, & assemblies, judges & governors shall all become wolves.”
The sad thing is that the last sentence describes the current situation in both Europe and the USA all too well. Many people feel that politicians do what they (or the big companies) want anyways and stopped caring. And it is not like politicians try to change this, we are just being told things are “without alternatives”. Think about how decisively the public is kept out at G8 meetings, ACTA negotiations and similar occasions! Maybe the “wolves” don’t want to be disturbed by the “sheep”?
Another thing I want to emphasize is the “reclaim them by enlightening them”. Education is key here. To understand what is going on and to put it into perspective, a good education is necessary, and that means not just knowledge, but most importantly the ability to think by yourself. Which is why I encourage you to read the letters by yourself and I’d be glad to hear what you think about this. 😉 If a government is doing the right thing, it should have no problem gaining the people’s support if it clearly explains the reasons rather than expecting people to shut up after voting.
Oh, and there’s also something that I think can very well be applied to Wikileaks:
“I agree with you that it is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities, which occur to him, for preserving documents relating to the history of our country.”
— Thomas Jefferson, October 4, 1823