The outgoing Information Commissioner published his Annual Report last week (available on the ICO website), and the first item in the foreword is a section on Transparency. He says that Transparency has become a standard part of our political vocabulary; and on the whole he thinks this is a good thing. Our public and private lives are the better for it; and so is our Democracy.

But we might be right to be sceptical about his claims. This is by way of an introduction to my summer book for Datonomytes, Political Hypocrisy – The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond” by David Runciman, based on his Carlyle lectures in 2007.

His theme is that hypocrisy (double standards) is inevitable anywhere; but that Liberal societies are particularly likely to produce hypocrisy phenomena, because they make large claims about individuals, ideals, and social institutions, while often, in politics and elsewhere, demonstrating behaviour of a much less elevated kind, often because of the naked exercise of power or indulgence of base appetites. It is a tendency which becomes more obvious in liberal democratic societies, because so much political capital can be made by accusing opponents of double standards.

Still, we must find a way of taking political ideals and related actions at face value, while knowing or suspecting that politicians in particular are not always what they appear to be, or claim to be.

Too much Transparency about politicians and about Government will make all of this very difficult indeed, and at worst destroy liberal democratic politics altogether. But as the MP’s expenses episode has demonstrated, we must have some degree of Transparency, and maybe more than we have at the moment. The balance must be struck somewhere, and at present the Government and the Commissioner, in relation to Freedom of Information, if not on the expenses issue, think it should be struck in different places.

The Commissioner thinks that data protection is also well served by more transparency, by which he means the individual person having a greater understanding of what is happening to his or her personal data. No doubt he is right to think that organisations that process data are being more helpful in this respect than in the past.

But there is another way of looking at data protection and transparency, because we might also reflect that we can hardly avoid double standards in our private lives; and that no account is taken of this in the insistent and illiberal drive towards personal information transparency, in the sense of the public laying bare in informational terms the various dimensions (and no doubt contradictions) of our private life and tastes.

So it is not only, or perhaps not mainly, a question of knowing what someone else knows about you. It is also whether you become accustomed to a bright, available, and unshaded mode of being yourself in which everything is known and nothing is concealed. It may sound odd to suggest that double standards are a defence against this sort of transparency, and can be a way of protecting the person’s independence and privacy. But in Orwell’s 1984 the emasculated condition of the Party Member is precisely one in which personal double standards and hypocrisy have been abolished, as Runciman points out. Knowing what is happening to your data is no defence against one-standard transparency; indeed, could be colluding with it.

Political Hypocrisy – The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond. By David Runciman. Princeton University Press. 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *