Transparency Is Overrated

In a representative democracy, data only goes so far—and knowledge is no substitute for real regulation.

Transparency is the Vitamin C of politics. It does some good under some limited conditions, but can cause harm if used as an alternative medicine when real treatments are needed. Though always popular, transparency has been much in the news recently as the solution to that which ails us. The real treatment is more regulation.

The cost of healthcare is rising? The ACA requires hospitals to publicly report how much they charge for each item and procedure in the hope that consumers will use this information to “buy” less costly treatments. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United opened the floodgates for the flow of contributions by interest groups to politicians’ campaign chests? Anti-corruption supporters have latched onto the ruling’s upholding of political-spending disclosure requirements as the best means of keeping special interests in check. NSA surveillance programs are viewed as overreaching, ensnaring millions of Americans and tapping the personal cell phones of the leaders of friendly nations? The Obama Administration has promised to be more transparent about why these programs are needed and how they really work.

Transparency has long been hailed as the foundation of democracy. As kids are taught in civic classes, if voters cannot find out what the government is doing—either because its actions are concealed or shrouded by the release of misinformation—how are they to judge its programs and vote them up or down during the next election? Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously declared, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” 

There is some truth in these claims, but much less than appears at first blush. The main reason transparency is vastly oversold is that it rests on a popular—but highly naïve—theory of how our democracy functions: Namely, that it operates as a direct democracy. This theory assumes voters can learn about the ins and outs of the numerous programs the government carries out; evaluate their effectiveness and costs; and determine which they favor or are keen to change or discontinue.

The problem with this theory is that most people are busy making a living, maintaining a family and a social life, watching TV, and nursing their six-packs, and thus have limited time and energy to devote to following public affairs. And, as recent studies reviewed in Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow show definitively, people do not have the training necessary to parse and evaluate the mountains of data. This is particularly true given the complexities and nuance of the available information. For example, some hospitals have rather low mortality rates, but it turns out that they achieve these good results by transferring dying patients to hospices. And how is the public to determine who is behind the donations a politician collects from innocuously named political action committees such as “All America,” “America Works,” “America’s Foundation,” and “American Dream.” Could anyone reasonably infer that the first two groups are linked to the Democratic Party while the second two are tied to Republicans?

Moreover, transparency, itself, requires the kind of coercive government regulation that proponents claim it is supposed to replace. Without government-mandated disclosure, most corporations and government agencies have little reason to release information about their inner workings, and, above all, ensure that this information is reliable, comprehensive, and readable. For example, many online companies are required to disclose their privacy policies to users. But these policies—crafted by lawyers to give the company as much leeway as possible—tend to be extremely difficult to understand and so lengthy that it would take the typical person roughly 250 hours to actually read through all the policies they encounter each year. This sort of “transparency” provides users with the illusion of security while actually serving to obfuscate.

Presented by

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

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