Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Freedom Of Information Day (Yesterday) At The Miami Herald

Alasdair Roberts from brings readers up to date on the struggle between populists and realists in regards to the freedom of information, transparency, and accountability.
Undoubtedly, the Bush administration has introduced unduly broad restrictions on openness since 9/11. But we shouldn't think that the fight over openness is simply driven by security fears. There's a deeper conflict, in Washington and abroad, about the way government works. It's a battle between two camps: populists and realists.

Populists ruled the 1990s. Their power is rooted in the long-term decline in trust in government and other institutions. Populists assume that elites will exploit secrecy to shortchange the American public. They're optimistic about the public's capacity to use information intelligently. And they want to exploit the internet's ability to distribute information quickly.


Realists watch these trends and cringe. Thirty years ago, the Trilateral Commission produced a famous report that said western democracies faced a ''crisis of governability'' caused by an adversary culture and the "debility of elected leaders.''

For realists, these problems have intensified. Interest groups seem more powerful, causing a gridlock that Jonathan Rauch calls ''hyperpluralism.'' The media environment is crowded with more outlets competing in a 24-hour news cycle.


Which side is right? For now, the populists. There's plenty of evidence that secrecy can cloak abuses of power. The realists' complaints about governability are often just an attempt to preserve the power of a narrow elite. And it's too early to tell how far the populists' push for radical transparency can go, or assess the implications of this trend.

Eventually, however, openness advocates will have to deal with realists' concern about the decline of governability. The issue will persist long after today's debate over secrecy and 9/11 has faded into history.

As I will articulate in the weeks ahead, there is no true conflict here with transparency and governability. Deliberative democracy and the freedom of information can go hand-in-hand - it's just going to take a new breed of politicians with the right mix of bargaining and strategic skills to make it work, not to mention a more engaged citizenry willing to uphold grassroots accountability.