Food for thought on transparency
Governments and political classes do lots of terrible things that they then attempt to conceal – but what if those terrible things are actually the essence of their job? I’m stretching a bit, here, the argument that Richard Waghorne makes in a very interesting op-ed. Waghorne is more interested in making a “grown up argument” for government, based upon the need to face emergencies. Fair enough. I think however the gist of his article lies in his understanding of transparency as sometimes hindering – so to say – the proper activity of government:
Much of the art of politics as properly practised is to reconcile a country to what is most necessary and most prudent, rather that whatever might most have been wanted. The political skill involved is not unlike that of the psychoanalyst who reconciles the patient to the truth of their own psyche or to the art of the clergyman who reconciles the parishioner to the limitations and the finitudes of the human condition. Nobody with any working knowledge of either approach is under the illusion that what most people need or want at the most difficult moments is an unreservedly blunt and unmediated encounter with reality. Indirection and omission can play their part and there need not always be the pretence that there is any genuine parity in capacity or authority between the participants, which can be quite far from being the case.
Waghorne thinks that “the purpose of the state for those who wish to deal with realities rather than fictions has always been not simply to act in ways which the public at large cannot act but also to know what the public at large is best not knowing”. It shall be clear that he is writing about the Coronavirus epidemic, and similarly threatening situations, not the day-by-day of politics and policies.
I find it a fascinating, albeit unpersuasive, arguments. There was, in the last few years, a general fascination with “transparency”, aiming, for example, at better disclosure of conflicts of interest by officials and the release of official documents. This phenomenon was supposed to be a boon for those who care about limiting governmental activities. Yet it does not seem to me that a higher degree of disclosure has produced in the public a higher demand for limiting government power. Perhaps it is actually the equivalent of a political Peltzman effect: people felt less careful about government action because they felt more protected. This of course is quite different than claiming that some aspects of government’s activity _ought_ to remain behind a smoke screen, but I suppose some will argue that if such activities do not happen behind a smoke screen, they can’t possibly be successful. In the case of an epidemic the point would be that it’s better to make preparations in silence than to scream around and scare people. It is, in a sense, a war-like situation. To win a war, all society should subordinate to a single end: that is, winning the war. To do so, resources are typically allocated by a central authority. The reason why “mobilization” is sometimes successful is that it quick. Perhaps a decentralized decision making process would achieve a better outcome (for example, in terms of technology standards, or organization of factories), but trial-and-error on the market takes time. Centralized decision making may produce a worse result, in terms of “quality” somehow assessed, but a quicker one and that gain in time offsets all the other problems, for the time being.
Keeping scare under control is a great way of economizing time. This explains Churchill’s famous dictum: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”
But the Coronavirus pandemic is happening in the world of social media and, while some civil servants may feel the need to be discrete in order to be effective, I suppose for most politicians the typical measure of success in terms of consents is still what matters (this is why, perhaps, having it during an election year could make an epidemic more dangerous).
So, I wonder if the problem is not the public’s need for information, and thus transparency, but with the incentives a political leader faces in the era of Twitter. Keeping up with the news stream seems more lucrative, in terms of consensus, than gathering together and fighting an emergency beyond partisan consideration.