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Is Open Government A Good Thing?

Micah Sifry over at Personal Democracy Forum covered the remarks of Tony Blair’s strategist Matt Taylor. In his post, he makes mention of Zephyr Teachout’s column on open politics and the Net. Both take the same position – the Net can open politics to greater citizen participation and involvement in politics – but is it correct?

There seems to be an unspoken assumption – widely accepted by many – that more involvement by more people in determining the course of our nation is a good thing. The theory assumes that the net can create a virtual polis where the citizens complete online polls to voice their support for various policies.

The trouble with this assumption is there is little to no evidence that the “people” are very good at steering this particular ship. The “people” were overwhelmingly in favor of going to Iraq and are now overwhelmingly against being there. The Democrats make the ridiculous claim that the people were misled, but they, like everyone else, made the best decision based on the information available at the time.

That’s the problem with open government. Government, by nature, contains secrets the same way companies do. Call it competitive intelligence if you will, but nation’s need to keep secrets. Open government assumes the leaders will talk openly about issues with the people, but the people inherently come to the discussion with less information, and incorrect assumptions and perceptions because they don’t know all the variables, and shouldn’t.

The people make decisions based on their immediate beliefs, rather than long term thinking. They listen to persuasive arguments and by into policy positions that are untenable because they are given only limited information. Those who have the information use it selectively to move others.

The recent leak of the National Intelligence Estimate is a prime example. The leaked portions heavily favored the Democrat position. The report in total was much more neutral, but the public perception, based on what was leaked and promoted first, is that the estimate was damaging to the administration. The total number of people who actually read the full report is exceedingly small compared to the number who read the excerpts or the coverage it received in the media.

Do we really want “the people” making suggestions for policies and making decisions for the country based on what they heard in the media? Or worse, what they heard Jon Stewart say on the Daily Show?

The movie Men in Black, for all its cheesy glory, contains a brilliant line that is applicable to this discussion. Will Smith asks Tommy Lee Jones why they don’t simply level with “the people” because they’re smart enough to handle it. Jones replies, “A person is smart. People are dumb panicky animals and you know it… A thousand years ago people knew that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat.”

Do we really want “the people” making decisions based on what they know now?

Written by Michael Turk