Transparency in Search of a Theory
European Journal of Social Theory May 2015 18: 150-167
32 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2015 Last revised: 29 Sep 2015
Date Written: 2015
Transparency’s importance as an administrative norm seems self-evident. Prevailing ideals of political theory stipulate that the more visible government is the more democratic, accountable, and legitimate one. The disclosure of state information consistently disappoints, however — there is never enough of it, while it often seems not to produce a truer democracy, a more accountable state, better policies, and a more contented populace. This gap between theory and practice suggests that the theoretical assumptions that provide the basis for transparency are wrong. This essay argues that transparency is best understood as a theory of communication that excessively simplifies and thus is blind to the complexities of the contemporary state, government information, and the public. Taking them fully into account, the essay argues, should lead us to question the state’s ability to control information — which in turn should make us question not only the improbability of the state making itself visible, but also the improbability of the state keeping itself secret.
Keywords: communication theory, information theory, open government, secrecy, transparency, politics
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