Tuesday, June 14, 2011

#165 / Transparency

"Transparency" is generally applauded. I applaud it myself. There are those, though, bold enough to proclaim themselves "against transparency." They do have some arguments. In order to "think," whether individually or collectively, it is important to be able to have an "internal" or "private" debate, so bad ideas can be considered outside the inferno of public scrutiny. That, at least, was my experience as an elected official at the local level of government. Our relationship with "transparency," then, in the realm of human debate, is "complicated," just like some of those personal relationships mentioned on a Facebook profile.

Our political process would work better, I believe, if there were more "transparency" in government. I am on the side of the Wikileakers, in other words. The debate and discussion that leads to the collective decisions that create our human world will almost always be better informed, and therefore substantively better, if more, not less, information is available for the debate.

The "availability" of good information, of course, doesn't guarantee that it will be used, or that good information will prevail, in the realm of political discourse. Have you, for instance, ever heard of Fox News, which claims to employ a "fair and balanced" approach to political debate?

My conclusion about the "transparency" discussion is that trying to focus lots of energy on providing transparency as a major objective of our politics is likely to be a diversion. We already have plenty of information upon which we can build our case for change and action (from whichever side we argue, on whatever question).

And as for truth, the "truth will out." That is my real belief:

From Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, 1596:

LAUNCELOT: Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son: give me your blessing: truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man's son may, but at the length truth will out.

In the longer run, it seems to me, transparency will take care of itself.


  1. The case of the released Palin emails during her governorship of Alaska is a point in support of your argument for some secrecy. Should the emails of all elected officials be released within two years of leaving office or on some other fixed time schedule? Is this disclosure too close to the internal thought processes of the person so as to raise privacy issues for the integrity of individual human souls or is this the harvest of transparency?

  2. Transparency:
    In support of your view that transparency is not a panacea and that it is an adulterated good, Jesse Lichtenstein agrees with you in “Transparency for All” in Wired 19.07 (July, 2011) p. 27. While transparency and disclosure can be a good disinfectant for the political process, a level playing field means something significant only if all people have the access and skills to use the data, which poor people do not. There is a data divide along class lines in all countries. The result is that information is not transparent to the majority of people, even if it is technically available. Even now, what practical access do people have to Wikileak data, except through elite interpreters? Worse, The Bhoomi Project in India to digitize 20 million land titles has proved a boon to corporations in dispossessing the poor of their meager property.

    The reality of the data divide is not an argument against transparency and disclosure, but it is not an end in itself, an unadulterated good. People need to know what information exists, have the training to be conversant and the tools for easy and cheap access.

    If we want open government through transparency, we must do further work through the non-profit sector to do the hard work of addressing these stubborn inequalities. Data alone is not enough.


  3. Data alone is definitely not enough!


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