Too Much Transparency?

In a recent New York Times column on “The Power Elite,” David Brooks argues:

As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.

He then offers five contributing factors. Here I want to zero in on his fifth factor: transparency.

Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it.

Lately, I too have been contemplating the affordances and the advantages, as well as the limitations and the liabilities of transparency. While I agree that transparency can devolve into a panopticon (to borrow Foucault’s insight), it is not without its virtues. Thus, my only conclusion so far is that transparency must been seen as a complex and multifaceted concept. As such, singular characterizations of transparency as either on the side of angels or demons strike me as too simplistic.

Perhaps the explanation for why people are less inclined to trust the government is much simpler: having pulled back the curtain, they do not like what they see.