Of advice and men

Judging from developments at the Pentagon and on Wall Street, June was National Scandal Month. Both the defense procurement probe and an insider-trading case, second only to that of the infamous Ivan Boesky, broke to the surface. To a public already troubled by the alleged ethical lapses of House Speaker Jim Wright and departing Attorney General Edwin Meese, these two latest cases made grim reading. In some ways, of course, the two are very different. The Pentagon probe involves dozens of players profiting from taxpayers' dollars. The Wall Street case involves only two individuals - Stephan Wang Jr. of Morgan Stanley & Co., and Hong Kong businessman Fred Lee - using schemes to cash in on rising stock values.

What's important, however, are two points the cases have in common: greed and the sharing of information.

On the first point, the public knows where to stand. Taking the moral high ground, it has no difficulty condemning the turpitude of those who trade scruples for pelf. We don't object to rewards for risk-taking - as long as the law is obeyed. In these two cases, the law stood clearly athwart the path. So, in a struggle as old as recorded history, obedience gave way to greed, greed left its telltale tracks, and the tracks will presumably lead to punishment. Once again, greed is shown to be a Bad Thing.

But history has few precedents for the other point - the sharing of information. Where, in fact, is the moral high ground on this issue?

Look, for a moment, at the facts. The point of contention, at the Pentagon and on Wall Street, is the right of an individual to share information. In the first case, the information has to do with government specifications for military equipment and with bids prepared by defense contractors. In the second, it concerns the prospect of corporate mergers and takeovers. Some of the first kind was classified; some of the second, privileged. But the fact that certain people knew it was not illegal.

Where, then, does the illegality arise? When the information changes hands. That's exactly where the moral confusion arises, too. It would be so easy if we could say, ``Passing along information is a Bad Thing.'' Which, of course, we can't. This is the Age of Information - so named because the assembling, processing, and sharing of information is central to our economy.

Measure that sharing officially, and it accounts for a vast chunk of our gross national product. Define it unofficially, and it's called ``networking.'' It's the basis of democracy, protected by the First Amendment. It's the daily raison d'etre for thousands of business breakfasts, service-club luncheons, and evening receptions. When it's attacked, we cry, ``Censorship!'' It is, without question, a Good Thing.

So how does a Good Thing become a Bad Thing? When the law redefines it as such. Recognizing that information has a value that can stimulate greed, the law walls off certain areas of information-processing - like defense contracting and investment banking. If you work inside those perimeters, you obey different rules. The very kind of networking that helps your friends on the outside win promotions can send you to jail. You are, after all, an Insider.

The point, here, is not to justify the lawbreaker or exonerate the greedy. It's to recognize that, because of unresolved tension between two views of information, we're on new and shaky turf. Never in history has mere information been so widely understood to be so valuable. If its value continues to rise, as seems probable, it's only logical that the law will have to wall off more areas where the Good Thing becomes a Bad Thing.

What will that do to the press, to publishing, to broadcasting? What will it do to democracy, which depends on information? How long can we throw people in jail for talking to each other before democracy begins to resemble tyranny?

Either we cling to our devotion to information - and find other, more above-board mechanisms to pursue mergers and military-contract bidding - or we retain our fetish for secrecy. Future generations will make it apparent that we can't have it both ways.

A Monday column

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