What would happen if the government was 100% transparent?

People all across the political spectrum regularly, and with good reason, decry the lack of transparency in our federal government.  I’m one of them.  The government can do a much better of demonstrating that we are not stupid for trusting them with our money and data.  However, many people across the political spectrum also tend to go a bit further, demanding a totally transparent government: every meeting recorded, every conversation taped, every decision available for public scrutiny.  While a world without secrets sounds wonderful but to be frank it scares the cynical crap out of me.

After a lifetime of studying history and working for the government and working for the military and in politics and in marketing and even as a cook:

Nobody wants to see how the sausage is made.

Government is messy. It is filled with conflicting ideas, attitudes, aptitudes, competencies, agendas, mandates, and egos. Getting things done requires compromise, negotiation, tact, and ruthlessness. Nobody who relies on reelection, no department that relies on public funding would ever want the public to know everything that they do.

Some conversations have to be frank and honest. And discreet. And allowed to make the kinds of mistakes of language plus the bargaining and vote-dealing that are essential for getting things accomplished would also get you crucified in the media and online. Consider the Civil Rights Act. A landmark piece of legislation that required a lot of deal-making, partisan bargaining, and lobbying to pass.

In today’s political world of instant outrage and over-analysis and hyper-partisanship we would never pass anything so bold as the Civil Rights Act. Secrecy allowed that.

The unfortunate and inconvenient truth is that some level of opacity is necessary for government to function. You don’t want my opinion when deciding federal interest rates and I don’t want yours when deciding how much foreign aid to give Saudi Arabia.

The more educated the electorate, the better a democracy functions. It is often a popular sentiment that the American electorate can be trusted with a greater piece of the process.  I see no evidence for this.

Categories: Government, Media

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