Clarity and Transparency

Matthew Yglesias on Transparency:

I think the country would benefit from drawing a terminological distinction they have in other Anglophone democracies between “the government” (Gordon Brown and his ministers and other political appointees) and “the state” (the permanent institutions of the United Kingdom). What people are entitled to more of is transparency in the operations of the state. The state is financed by our taxes and is supposed to be serving our interests. It ought to be as easy as possible to figure out what’s going on—what the rules are, where the money’s going, how it all works, etc.

But I think that transparency in the sense of “the government” offered above is of much more dubious value.

I really agree that the conversation regarding transparency would benefit from drawing a distinction between Government and the State, but his description transparency in government misses the mark.

Consider the deficit. Imagine a meeting between President Obama and Mitch McConnell about the long-term, and assume that both guys are operating in good faith but that neither of them are self-sacrificing saints and neither of them can be fully sure whether the other one is operating in good faith. McConnell starts by saying that the deficits projected in the President’s budget are too big. If the meeting is behind closed doors, Obama can say “obviously that’s why we’re having a meeting.” But if the cameras are rolling, Obama needs to treat McConnell’s observation as a political attack and respond in kind by arguing that deficits are mostly caused by Bush’s policies and the economic downturn.

Which is all true enough, but there are lots and lots of off the record conversations and negotiation taking place in Washington, D.C. In the last year there have been non-transparent talks on pretty much every major issue (budget, climate, health care, financial reform) and the problem is just never that they have some great deal both sides really wanted to do and then things got transparent. And there’s nothing stopping Obama, McConnell or anyone from doing more closed door meetings.

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