The Limits of Transparency

Date01 November 2014
Published date01 November 2014
Amitai Etzioni is University Professor
at the George Washington University. He
taught at Columbia University, Harvard
University, and the University of California,
Berkeley. He served as president of the
American Sociological Association and
is author of several books, including
Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics,
Modern Organizations,
A Comparative
Analysis of Complex Organizations.
latest book,
The New Normal: Life in Post
Aff‌l uence America,
will be published by
Transaction Publishers in November 2014.
The Limits of Transparency 687
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 6, pp. 687–688. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12276.
and Regulatory Af‌f airs, considers it a point of pride
that the Obama administration issued fewer regula-
tions than any of his four predecessors. In a 2013
column for the Wall Street Journal, Sunstein decried
the “red tape” that characterizes regulation and that,
according to him, risks “compromising economic
growth and job creation.” In contrast, Sunstein has
been an outspoken advocate of greater transparency,
arguing that it ensures government accountability
while saving money.
e main reason transparency is vastly oversold is
that it rests on a popular but naive theory of the way
democracy functions, namely, that it operates as a
direct democracy.  is theory assumes that voters can
learn about the ins and outs of the numerous programs
the government carries out or af‌f ects, evaluate them,
and determine which they favor or seek to discon-
tinue.  e problem with this theory is that most peo-
ple are busy making a living and maintaining a family
and a social life, and they have very limited time and
energy to devote to following public af‌f airs. And, as
studies reviewed in inking, Fast and Slow by Nobel
laureate Daniel Kahneman (2011, 157–58) show, peo-
ple do not have the training necessary to evaluate the
relevant data. For example, some hospitals have rather
low mortality rates, but this can be attributable to the
fact that that they do not treat complicated cases or
that they transfer dying patients to hospices. A correct
evaluation requires taking into account all of these and
other variables rather than merely looking at the end
results. And how is the public to determine who is
behind the donations a politician collects from politi-
cal action committees called “All America,” “America
Works,” and “American Dream”?
For information to be accurate and accessible,
transparency requires the kind of regulation that
proponents claim it is supposed to replace. Without
government-mandated disclosure, most corpora-
tions have little reason to issue information that is
reliable, comprehensive, and readable. For example,
many online companies post their privacy policies.
Transparency has long been a popular way
of governing in the United States. Recent
ideological and political developments have
further enhanced its popularity. However, it is a very
poor substitute for regulation. True, regulation poses
costs and raises normative issues of its own, hence it is
best used sparingly. However, when there are compel-
ling reasons to advance a particular common good—
say, climate control or public health—transparency
can help regulation but cannot replace it.
Transparency is generally def‌i ned by political scientists
as the principle of enabling the public to gain informa-
tion about the operations and structures of a given
entity. It is often considered synonymous with open-
ness and disclosure. Moreover, political theorists as well
as public intellectuals and leaders have long viewed
transparency as an essential element of keeping the gov-
ernment accountable to the people, that is, of the dem-
ocratic form of government. James Madison wrote that
any “popular Government, without popular informa-
tion, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a
Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Similar ideas are
found in the works of Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Bentham,
and Kant. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
famously declared that “publicity is justly commended
as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight
is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
In recent decades, the support for regulation has
declined and the favor of transparency has increased as
a result of the laissez-faire conservative backlash to the
Great Society liberal era. Over the years that followed,
libertarian ideologies gained a sizeable following. At the
same time, transparency became popular on the left,
which promoted sunshine laws that required govern-
ment meetings to be open to the public and the press.
e Barack Obama administration found it dif‌f‌i cult
to promote much new regulation in the face of strong
conservative objections and often advanced transpar-
ency instead. Cass Sunstein, who served as admin-
istrator of the White House Of‌f‌i ce of Information
Amitai Etzioni
George Washington University
e Limits of Transparency

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