Beware attack on openness

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Six years have passed since the financial collapse of 2008. We liberated global financial markets to rule themselves, and they let us down. Now we are witnessing one of the perverse results of this collapse: a boom in complaints about the weaknesses of democracy, and the dangers of too much governmental openness.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/10/2014 (2859 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Six years have passed since the financial collapse of 2008. We liberated global financial markets to rule themselves, and they let us down. Now we are witnessing one of the perverse results of this collapse: a boom in complaints about the weaknesses of democracy, and the dangers of too much governmental openness.

The trend is illustrated by a new bestseller from political scientist Francis Fukuyama. In the 1990s, Fukuyama celebrated the surge toward liberal democracy in the post-Soviet era. He called it the “final form of human government.” Now Fukuyama says that the United States is in deep trouble. The problem? Too much democracy, he suggests. “An imbalance between the strength and competence of the state on the one hand, and the institutions that were originally designed to constrain the state on the other.”

Fukuyama is not the only critic of democratic excesses. Earlier this year, editors of The Economist complained that western democracies have become “bloated and overwhelmed.” The British political scientist David Runciman recently warned that undue faith in democracy has “created the conditions for systemic failure.” The American historian Donald Kagan cautions that “democracy may have had its day.” And the British historian Niall Ferguson has worried about the “malaise” of modern representative government.

The major democracies, Conrad Black said last year, “are beleaguered, sluggish, self-critical, and often awash in commercial tawdriness and political infantalism, backbiting, and posturing.” Black actually wrote this as part of a defense of democracy over its authoritarian rivals. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

This turn against democracy is not surprising. Every prolonged economic slump has produced similar hand-wringing. Writing in the early years of the Great Depression, the political scientist Harold Laski also worried about the “malaise in representative democracy.” And during the economic troubles of the 1970s, Canada’s Richard Simeon warned about “a political malaise which is in some respects more severe than that of the Great Depression, and which may constitute a threat to the continued existence of representative government itself.”

Still, we should be concerned about these recent criticisms of democracy. That is especially true for people who care about governmental openness. The years between 1990 and 2008 were good for transparency. For example, over 80 countries adopted access to information laws. But the movement for openness rode on the wave of enthusiasm for democracy that followed the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s. After all, how could new democracies succeed if citizens did not have information about the workings of governmental institutions?

Now the tide is running in the other direction. In his latest book, Fukuyama suggests that American democracy has become dysfunctional partly because of excesses in transparency. Too much openness, he worries, has undermined the effectiveness and legitimacy of government. Another recent book also challenges the notion that transparency “is an unmitigated good.” American government, says Jason Grumet, “is more open, more transparent, and less functional than ever before.”

Talk like this gives cover to politicians and civil servants who are already inclined to question the value of transparency policies. In the United Kingdom, for example, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to impose new fees for making requests under the Freedom of Information Act that was adopted in 2005. Cameron has complained the law “furs up the arteries of government.” And the Australian government has asked Parliament to eliminate the nation’s office of the Information Commissioner, saying that it will “improve efficiencies” and “further the commitment to smaller government.”

Advocates of openness have to challenge this way of thinking. In fact, transparency policies are not a key cause of democratic malaise. There are more important considerations at work. The pressure on democracies is more intense during economic crises because such crises require a rethinking of conventional wisdom about the role of government in the economy. Hard times also lead to painful arguments about the allocation of economic losses. And social disorder — protests, strikes, even riots — typically flairs up as well.

All of these considerations explain why transparency is actually more important during hard times. Access to information allows the public to participate fully in decisions about the role of government that may have consequences for decades. It enables people to judge whether decisions about bailouts and cutbacks are made fairly. And when things get very rough, it permits people to judge whether police power is exercised with restraint.

We will get through this moment of democratic malaise, as we have before. In the meantime, we should exercise some restraint in making final judgments about the viability of the democratic system. And we should be careful about abandoning policies, like those guaranteeing transparency, that give democracies the capacity to adapt to new conditions and maintain the support of citizens.


Alasdair Roberts is a professor of law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. His latest book is The End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Control Dissent (Cornell University Press).

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