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.”