Friday, April 25, 2008

Can government be restrained by transparency requirements?

I ended my last post by suggesting that procedures that promote transparency can be an important constraint on the expansion of government if voters understand their importance and expect governments to comply with them (see here).

The expansion of government is often discussed as though it is perfectly obvious to everyone who are the net gainers from redistributions and who are the net losers. In fact, however, when we look at government programs we find that the redistributions they involve are often far from transparent. Non-transparent redistributions are often favoured in order to hide redistributions that are difficult to justify in terms of widely accepted ethical standards. It seems to me that procedures that promote transparency can therefore be an important constraint on the expansion of government.

What I had in mind were things like: legislative requirements for governments to specify monetary and fiscal policy objectives publicly and make public any departures from those objectives; requirements for publication of formal coalition agreements to make governments less vulnerable to attempts by minor parties to extract additional concessions at times of their own choosing; and requirements for governments to refer matters to independent public review before introducing measures (such as tariff changes) that assist some groups at the expense of others.

Such procedures certainly cannot be relied upon to restrain government from doing things that are popular with a majority of voters, or things that governments feel that they must do to preserve their tenure of power.

However, it seems to me that democratic governments can be deterred from over-turning inconvenient transparency procedures if they believe that such actions would contravene the concerns of voters about procedural fairness.

It is obvious that the concerns of voters about procedural fairness must encompass some transparency requirements if you consider how voters would react to a proposal for future government budgets to be secret. It would be reasonable to expect widespread opposition to such a proposal, including among government supporters, because of concerns that the removal of the limited transparency that publication of budgets provides would enable members of the government to enrich themselves at public expense without anyone knowing.

How far can transparency requirements protect against the expansion of government? The concerns of voters about procedural fairness clearly do not provide much protection against redistributions that are widely perceived to be equitable. I agree with Gerald Gauss that “for many citizens, their understanding of moral norms related to fairness endorses government-made rules over-riding the conventional rules of property” (here).

Nevertheless, many government programs involve redistributions that seem to me to be inconsistent with widely accepted moral norms. An example of the kind of thing I have in mind is the way the provision of universal services by government without charge to users (e.g. public education and health services) discriminates against people (including low-income people) who elect not to use these services. I think there would be less support for such redistributions if they were made more transparent through procedural requirements e.g. for periodical independent reviews to consider whether stated objectives are being met efficiently and equitably.

The important point is that voters’ concerns for procedural fairness can reinforce transparency procedures that can help to raise concerns about fairness that, in turn, can help to restrain the expansion of government.

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