Transparency And The Despotism Of Data

The brilliant PEG points my eye toward this observation on the limits of transparency in an era of big government:

People who are hip to the we-gov (as opposed to e-gov) concept are beginning to see that in order to bring netizens in as partners in governance, they need to be data literate, and need to be empowered with an understanding of what data actually means. Otherwise data — data that is useless to anyone except an intellectual elite — is largely just another tool for public relations, or a way to lower costs.

I’ve got nothing against popular numeracy, though I do groan each time a pundit or a president plumps for ‘more science and math education’ as a twenty-first century cure-all. Here I see a similar problem. Should we really seek public data literacy because our government is impenetrable and unintelligible unless we can crunch numbers? Or is this a case of the enormous tail wagging, and whipping, the dog?

A progressive fatalist — here is a moniker that should enter the lexicon — might argue that this sort of logic reflects simply the latest and greatest definition of citizenship. Just as basic literacy and public awareness once set the bar for responsible citizenship (never mind those nasty poll tests), now, today, anyone who wants to participate properly in politics needs to brush up on their quant skills. But this elegant line of reasoning conveniently elides what any friend of political liberty will recognize as the central problem: a government that concentrates information as irresistibly as it concentrates power.

Even setting aside the libertarian worry that a national-security state run wild will gobble up all our private information in permanent endless databases, Americans should pause before learning to love government data. The ability to digest numerical information, though important, still puts the would-be citizen in a default position of passive consumption. And the switch from discourse-driven citizenship to data processing puts us all on a conceptual footing that favors precisely what any public conversation about the means and ends of our BIG government should emphasize — the indefinite expansion, entrenchment, and convolution of bureaucratic complexity. As David Brooks warns today, super-human complexity breeds all-too-human complacency, caprice, and corruption — the very things that an active, education citizenry is able, and even designed, to prevent.

  1. Pat in Obamaland

    Wonderful post and I enjoyed the article as well (I have found myself reading David Brooks less and less lately). I want to challenge your conclusion and hear your thoughts.

    I’ll propose my thesis like this: While our government continues a century-long expansion into more aspects of our daily lives, the citizens of the country remain, by and large, in favor of a limited role for government in their lives (assuming, arguendo, we remain a center-right nation). As the government releases more information and becomes more transparent, the true size and scope of the federal government is revealed. Rather than forcing citizens to accept a big government that generates lots of data within a bureaucracy of super-human complexity, citizens may well reject the leviathan they were not totally aware existed.

  2. Tuck

    This is a rather utopian concern, IMHO. If people actually start looking at any information that might be useful, the Feds will simply stop releasing it.

    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/blogs/beltway-confidential/Ag-Department-shuts-down-embarrassing-subsidies-database–94775469.html

  3. James Poulos
    C

    Let’s hope you’re both right — that enough information is readily comprehensible and that enough Americans are willing to take its implications seriously. In a growing number of cases, no doubt you already are. Let’s hope, too, that those numbers continue to grow.

  4. Pat in Obamaland

    Tuck–while certain databases devoted exclusively to releasing compiled information like the one mentioned in the Washington Examiner article may be shut down when it reveal embarrassing information, there are always secondary means through which government data can be released and be informative.

    As an anecdote, I had a liberal friend from law school who was struggling to find a job after she graduates. I told her the federal government was one of the few employers looking to hire lawyers in this market. I recommended she look at a database created by the Office of Personnel Management which posts all open federal positions. After exploring the website, she commented to me that she was stunned and concerned by the sheer size of the government and the existence of ridiculous agencies that were looking to expand (and pay their staff lucratively).

    In the information age, we don’t need spreadsheets full of pork for the average citizen to become informed about their government.

  5. Mark Wilson

    “Data literacy” can be as simple as knowing the difference between a million and a billion. Remember all the breathless handwringing over the AIG bonuses?

    On a very basic level, I think a sense of scale would go a long way toward creating a culture of small government.

  6. Aaron Miller

    As the saying goes, “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Transparency doesn’t equate to clarity, even in the eyes of astute citizens. If a politician handed me a spreadsheet with nothing but numbers, I’d still question the presentation as much as the numbers themselves.

    The problem of transparency is tackled best by localizing government. Citizens are less dependent on the reports of government and watchdog organizations when those who govern and the challenges they face are close to home.

  7. George Savage

    The ability to digest numerical information, though important, still puts the would-be citizen in a default position of passive consumption.

    Not necessarily, James. Not if Americans read Darrell Huff’s 1954 classic, How to Lie with Statistics. This slender, accessible, indispensable volume enables the citizen of whatever mathematical background to toggle default from passive consumption to active skepticism.

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