David Brooks made the provocative suggestion last week that there’s too much transparency these days.
I think there’s something too that, though I also think there’s something too the idea that we need much more transparency. I think the country would benefit from drawing a terminological distinction they have in other Anglophone democracies between “the government” (Gordon Brown and his ministers and other political appointees) and “the state” (the permanent institutions of the United Kingdom). What people are entitled to more of is transparency in the operations of the state. The state is financed by our taxes and is supposed to be serving our interests. It ought to be as easy as possible to figure out what’s going on—what the rules are, where the money’s going, how it all works, etc.
But I think that transparency in the sense of “the government” offered above is of much more dubious value. It’s extremely difficult for elected officials in a representative democracy to bargain with one another effectively if their internal dialogue is made to be transparent. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which I’ve discussed previously, but the problem is really quite profound.
Consider the deficit. Imagine a meeting between President Obama and Mitch McConnell about the long-term, and assume that both guys are operating in good faith but that neither of them are self-sacrificing saints and neither of them can be fully sure whether the other one is operating in good faith. McConnell starts by saying that the deficits projected in the President’s budget are too big. If the meeting is behind closed doors, Obama can say “obviously that’s why we’re having a meeting.” But if the cameras are rolling, Obama needs to treat McConnell’s observation as a political attack and respond in kind by arguing that deficits are mostly caused by Bush’s policies and the economic downturn.
Now McConnell’s political record has been attacked, so he needs to defend himself, and say that the stimulus was Obama’s idea and a huge waste of money, not a consequence of the downturn and also that the Bush/McConnell tax cuts boosted growth and are awesome. Then Obama’s talking about how McConnell’s ideas would have landed us in a second Great Depression, and the GOP is the “party of no” and yadda yadda.
Next thing you know, you’ve got a very cliché political fight on your hands and “centrists” are moaning about how nobody wants to tell the American people the truth and everything’s so partisan and blah-blah-blah-blah. And of course since it was my hypothetical, I got to specify that everyone was actually acting in bad faith. But in the real world, nobody knows that, so people inclined to trust McConnell ex ante will conclude that Obama was acting in bad faith and people inclined to trust Obama ex ante will conclude that McConnell was acting in bad faith.
This is just in the nature of political rivals performing in public. I can see in my own life a huge difference between a personal conversation about politics with someone whose views are different from mine and a public debate about politics with that exact same person.