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Arnold Kling

Public Officials and Cameras

Arnold Kling*

 
A recent editorial in the Washington Post1 endorsed forcing police to wear cameras. The editorial concluded,

It's not hard to think of instances in which video evidence would do much to settle or shed light on bitter disputes about the use of force by police—think of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo., this summer. And while some civil liberties groups have expressed concern about intrusive filming of citizens, that worry seems a little archaic. The truth is that anyone can be filmed in public at virtually any time, without their knowledge, given the proliferation of security and phone cameras. Their use by police is overdue.

Once again, I am reminded of David Brin's 1998 book The Transparent Society, which I revisited here in July of 2013.2 Brin takes the view that the ability of citizens to monitor government officials is essential to liberty. In the remainder of this essay, I want to suggest that if cameras for police are a good idea, then cameras for all public officials may be also be a good idea.

Why is it a good idea for police to wear cameras?

  1. 1. As the Post editorial points out, it would provide evidence in situations where the legitimacy of police actions is in doubt.
  2. 2. Knowing that their actions are recorded, police may be inclined to exercise more care and self-control in their work.
  3. 3. The public may grow to have greater confidence that police are being held to appropriate standards of conduct.

Suppose that in (1)-(3) above, we were to substitute "public officials" for "police." Do the same benefits not apply?3

For example, consider the controversial decisions made during the financial crisis of 2008—to bail out Bear Stearns, not to bailout Lehman Brothers, and to help AIG Insurance meet its short-term obligations to investment bankers in exchange for the government taking equity in AIG. Many citizens have doubted the wisdom of these actions, and indeed their legitimacy. We are left to wonder if the decisions would have been made in the same way had the officials involved known that they were being recorded. Perhaps recording the deliberations would have produced better decisions, more public confidence in those decisions, or both.

In the case of the financial crisis, I would argue against requiring immediate disclosure of recordings of meetings. Officials were discussing proprietary information disclosed to them by financial institutions. They needed to frankly consider scenarios which, if spelled out in public, might have exacerbated panic. This need for temporary secrecy is familiar to students of military history. It is only years after a war has ended that the government records pertaining to intelligence, planning, and evaluation are made public.

If we were to have all public officials wear cameras whenever they are engaging in official business, then we would need an archive agency to maintain records and approve their release. In cases where immediate disclosure of records might prove detrimental to the public, this third-party agency would determine the appropriate release schedule.

The big question about having public officials wear cameras is whether their loss of privacy would have unintended adverse consequences. Perhaps their decisions would better serve the public interest if they could operate in secret rather than be recorded.

The argument against official transparency was made recently in an op-ed by Jason Grumet of the Bipartisan Policy Center.4 Grumet suggests that existing transparency requirements already inhibit public officials in performance of their duties. Problems that he cites include:

  1. 1. When officials have doubts or concerns about a policy, they are reluctant to voice them, for fear that their doubts will be revealed later, to their embarrassment.
  2. 2. Officials meet in contexts that evade transparency requirements. The quality of deliberation is lower in these contexts than it would be at a more natural, non-transparent meeting.
  3. 3. Transparency strengthens interest groups or extreme ideologues at the expense of ordinary citizens.

These are reasonable concerns. However, I am not persuaded by them. Concerning (1), even in a non-transparent environment, officials know that controversial opinions can be "leaked" to their embarrassment. If anything, I believe that secrecy contributes to group-think and stifles dissent. I would hope that as the public observes meetings, officials are embarrassed less for questioning the consensus than for failing to notice the flaws in that consensus.

 

For more on these topics, see "Confidentially Yours: The Difference between Private and Public Snooping," by Declan McCullagh at the Library of Economics and Liberty, March 1, 2004. See also the podcast episode Barofsky on Bailouts on EconTalk, and Public Choice in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Concerning (2), one has to work toward having officials embrace the spirit of transparency rather than look for loopholes. As with any law, you have to reach a point where the rules are willingly obeyed if it is going to be effective.

Concerning (3), Grumet's implicit assumption is that public officials will resist the pleadings of special interests more readily if the officials meet in secret. However, it seems to me that one could just as easily argue that officials will work hand-in-hand with special interests if meetings are secret. My reading of public choice theory is that neither secrecy nor transparency is likely to keep special interests at bay.

Perhaps the best approach to this issue would be an experimental one. Agree on criteria for measuring the quality of decision-making processes. Randomly assign some government agencies and some local governments to two different groups, one that wears cameras and one that does not. Then observe how policies evolve among the two groups over a period of five years or so, using the criteria for assessment. I am sure that neither group's policy process will be perfect. However, I think that there is good chance that the transparent group will earn a better grade.


Footnotes

"David Brin's Transparent Society Revisited", by Arnold Kling. Library of Economics and Liberty, July 1, 2013.

3.

Dave Eggers' 2013 novel, The Circle, describes a fictional society in which politicians wear cameras in order to be transparent. The novel gives this a dystopian context.

4.

"When sunshine doesn't always disinfect the government," by Jason Grumet. Washington Post, October 2, 2014.


*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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