The first drawback of government

I discussed two benefits of government in the previous essay. These benefits and the drawback I discuss in this essay are all concomitants of government – they exist wherever there’s political authority of some kind. They are not opposites that can be weighted against each other on a scale of good vs bad government. In fact it might be arguable that the one drawback I discuss in this essay, secrecy, is more extensive under democratic governments than under a dictatorial ones. Every manifestation of government will exhibit its own specific blend of mutual trust, shared resources and secrecy. Only practical experience can show if a specific combination of them is good or bad.

The first drawback: secrecy

Some political commentators maintain that government should be entirely transparent. According to them, every decision which a public authority makes should immediately be justified to the general public by frank and immediate disclosure of all the relevant material, along with a record of the process which led to the decision. This would ensure that authorities and influential groups always remain accountable to the public for their decisions.

This no-secrets-in-government ideal holds one important truth. Secrecy helps leaders abuse the trust that has been conferred on them. This is indisputable, and it has diligently been proved right by numerous politicians, both dictatorial and democratically elected. Complete transparency would obviously go along way toward solving this problem and it’s easy to pinpoint many areas where even the best governments should strive for less secrecy. But there’s a limit to these benefits. If secrecy is reduced more and more, a point will be reached where the reduction is no longer beneficial to society, but harmful.

It will take a few paragraphs to explain this. First, a basic feature of human society is that people have conflicting interests and opinions. In one-party states the governing authorities struggle to suppress multiplicity and impose uniformity. Ruling elites have throughout history recognized that the greatest danger to their political survival is a dissenting opinion starting to gain popularity. The great achievement of representative democratic government is that it incorporates the conflicting interests and opinions of society, at least to some extent. The process is rough and some groups are disproportionately influential while others are disadvantaged, but on the whole democratic government is sensitive to the shifting currents of public opinion.

But being sensitive to public opinion is one thing, and making decisions is something different. Imagine twenty disagreeing people, stranded on a desert island, trying to reach a difficult decision. They must cooperate to maximize their chances of survival. They agree that the decision must be mutual and that everyone’s opinion will be taken into account. But cooperation requires that there can be only one decision. This means that everyone will have to make compromises if there’s going to be any agreement at all. Some people will more or less have their way, others will be left disappointed.

If the same twenty people then reconvene the next day to resolve another thorny problem, and then keep meeting repeatedly while holding firm to their democratic conviction, they will eventually be making decisions by bargaining with each other. Each person will remember his or her earlier compromises and will drive a harder or softer bargain based on that recollection. Most people will not have the foresight to objectively weigh their own preferences against those of others. Instead, they will greatly emphasize their own. The bigger the group, the harder it becomes to keep the group united while giving everyone’s opinion a fair hearing.

Millions of interests are reconciled with each other in democratic government through bargaining. Modern democracy avoids the untractable problems of direct democracy through representation, but that does not reduce the need to bargain. Power is distributed to political parties in elections and elected representatives use that power to bargain for the agenda that their voters supported. The agenda presumably reflects voter interests. Just like the people stranded on a desert island, politicians reach agreements by compromise, giving in on some questions to mount a more aggressive stance on other ones. They receive support from comrades in one vote and return the favour in another one.

What does bargaining achieve? It achieves cooperation, the key element of survival on a desert island and a key to success in any modern society. In their book Politics, Economics and Welfare, Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom put it thus:

“Without the work of the politician a bargaining society would fly into its myriad separate warring parts. (p.334)”

We can now finally understand why democratic government needs secrecy. There would be no way of continuously reconciling hundreds, thousands or millions of conflicting interests with each other to the satisfaction of all parties. So democratic politicians make secret, pragmatic decisions about how to prioritize and simplify their agenda. In effect they sweep together particular interests with a broad brush and try to fuse them to a sensible average that they can defend. Their responsibility as elected representatives is to ensure that this average lies within the general framework that their voters endorsed.

If every political decision was to be completely public, all members of society would count 10 decisions seemingly going against their interests for every decision going with their interest. There can be so many diverging viewpoints on every political issue, but only a small number of decisions. If people were then given strict accountability,  large-scale political organization would become impossible, as Dahl and Lindblom suggest. The benefits of cooperation would be lost through disagreement. This is why a certain amount of secrecy is needed even in benevolent, democratic and honest government. Large-scale government is about tradeoffs, but individual citizens can neither judge such tradeoffs nor recognize their benefits. So decision-makers need some secrecy.

Too much secrecy is clearly a bad thing, but so is too little of it. There’s an obvious need for transparency and critical watchdog journalism to alert the public about stupidity and corruption in government. But paradoxical as it may seem, the public should not be aware of everything. Significant cooperation benefits can be gained from a shroud of secrecy over democratic decision-making. Interests are, in the end, more uniform and malleable than the public would willingly concede.


Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, Politics, Economics and Welfare, Harper & Row 1963.


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