Over the past week I’ve received a number of emails asking me what I think about Ivan Krastev’s recent TED talk, “Can democracy exist without trust.”
So here is what I think about it. It’s a nice TED talk in the way that my buddy Evgeny describes a “nice TED talk.” It covers a lot of ground and puts forth a lot of ideas that are connected with witty (if fictitious) anecdotes and Eastern European self-deprecation. It’s hard not to like the guy, especially as a self-proclaimed heretic in the church of TED can-do optimism.
But I think his argument is, at best, a collage of speculation. As I understand it, Krastev’s thesis that transparency can erode trust in democracy is based on the following ten claims:
- Greater information about government can reduce voter turnout
- Europeans believe that there is a growing gap between policy makers’ decisions and the public’s wishes
- A growing culture of individualism has stifled collective purpose and collaboration
- The spread of democracy is correlated to the spread of inequality
- After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the wealthy elites stopped fearing “the 99%”
- The Internet creates echo chambers
- Advances in neuroscience have enabled policy makers to manipulate the emotions of people
- Knowing more about how a government works doesn’t necessarily increase trust in institutions
- Transparency policies can cause government officials to not speak frankly for fear of “being caught” by “gotcha politics”
- In order to win primary elections, politicians will move to the polar extremes
When you take each one of those claims separately, it seems to me that some of them are obvious, others have been backed up by some preliminary research, and most of them are still heavily debated with contradicting research.
For example, Krastev hints at causality between more access to information about government and lower voter turnout. That could very well be one of many factors (some preliminary research here in Mexico has shown that greater information about political corruption can cause a slightly lower voter turnout), but there are literally dozens of alternative explanations that are extremely difficult to control for. Wikipedia has a good summary of some of the research attempting to explain the decline of voter turnout in developed democracies. Personally, I’m always amazed that the US, for example, continues to have such high voter turnout rates when so few votes are actually consequential due to the electoral college system. It points to a sense of moral civic duty trumping logic and reason.
My colleagues and I often speak of other potentially negative effects of transparency, including many that Krastev doesn’t mention:
- Too much weight has been given to transparency and not enough to structural policy reform
- Un-selective, de-contextualized disclosure can cloud rather than give clarity to how government functions
- In authoritarian countries especially, greater transparency may incentivize legislators to vote along party lines
- Depending on who has access to disclosed information, the digital divide may magnify the social divide
Transparency is no magic bullet, but in general I always ask myself if we are better off with access to information about our governments’ activities and processes or without it, and rarely do I conclude that we’d be better off without it.