The Case Against Transparency

Posted on Oct 23, 2009

Lawrence Lessig recently penned an article stating the case against total government transparency. It is a dense read that tends to flip-flop along the way so I managed to find an paraphrased and annotated version which summarizes it quite nicely. The summary contains links to the relevant sections, but I haven’t had time to comb through and verify the author’s interpretation of Lessig’s article. Reader beware.

The salient point that stood out the most to me was the claim that, “Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.” The reasoning goes on to suggest that unfiltered access to information allows the public to make biased correlations between money, influence, and corruption. Moreover, those correlations are harmful because they might lead people to misunderstand or just ignore the information they receive.

I’m someone who wants to see the public have unfettered access to not just campaign finances, but to government spending, budgets, and so forth. While some people might make biased or misguided correlations and derive accusations of corruption or manipulate public agendas, I think the benefits outweight those concerns. Understanding where and how our tax dollars are being spent by the government should be the right of every citizen. We also haven’t seen a project of this nature evolve and doubting its benefits before even giving it a shot is like cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Income taxes are a necessary evil in our modern society. They allow the government to take the money they want from the fruits of our labour and leave us what they think is a suitable amount to live on. This was a suitable arrangement when the world was assailed by world wars compounded with stock market crashes. The government spending on social assistance and public infrastructure programs really dragged us through the mud. But we haven’t needed that kind of assistance for at least the past thirty years. That corruption has become so common place as to not even warrant front-page news anymore is a glaring sign of this for me. If we cannot repeal income taxes this far along we should at least have the right to inspect how far our dollars are going. One thing we cannot forget is that the money the government collects from us is a debt they owe to the public and as creditors we should have the right to inspect the books to ensure they aren’t cheating us.

This kind of transparency hasn’t been achieved before. Its consequences could range from nirvana to chaos and it’s too hard to predict the out-come without even trying it. Total transparency cannot be achieved over-night, but there must be some way we can experiment with the idea. We could start by building a computerised system to track the expenses of a handful of agencies and open access to the public. Maybe when we have some really solid evidence of whether fiscal transparency works or not we can make some substantial judgement calls. Until then claims against its efficacy amount to hot air in my opinion.

Lessig is a very smart man, I have no doubt. But I find his extreme cautionary approach to fiscal transparency disheartening. We’ve come to a precipice where the need for government accountability has never been more desireable. We can’t just sit here and let things stay as they are. We have to do something and can’t be doubting solutions before we’ve had a chance to try them out.