Secrecy & Lawmaking

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has generated considerable controversy, mostly over what people think it might do. While making prediction about such complex matters is always difficult, there is a somewhat unusual challenge in making such prediction about the TPP. This challenge is that it is being kept secret from the public.

While senators are allowed to read the text of the TPP, it is being treated like an ultra-secret document. To gaze upon it, a senator must go to a secure basement room, hand over all electronics and then leave behind any notes he (or she) has written. An official from the US Trade Representative’s office watches them. After reading the document, the senator is not allowed to discuss the matter with the public, experts or lawyers.

While members of congress typically do not read the legislation the lobbyists have written for them to pass and the public usually has little interest in the text of bills, there is obviously still the question of justifying such secrecy. After all, the United States is supposed to be a democratic state and President Obama made all the right noises about transparency in government.

Robert Mnookin, of Harvard Law, has put forth stock justifications for such secrecy. The first justification is that having such matters open to the public is damaging to the process: “The representatives of the parties have to be able to explore a variety of options just to see what might be feasible before they ultimately make a deal. That kind of exploration becomes next to impossible if you have to do it in public.”

The second stock justification is that secrecy enables deals to be negotiated. As he says,  “In private, people can explore and tentatively make concessions, which if they publicly made, would get shot down before you really had a chance to explore what you might be given in return for some compromise.”

In support of Mnookin, public exposure does have its disadvantages and secrecy does have its advantages. As he noted, if the negotiating parties have to operate in public, this can potentially limit their options. To use the obvious analogy, if a person is negotiating for a raise, then having to do so in front of his colleagues would certainly limit her options. In the case of trade deals, if the public knew about the details of the deals, then there might be backlash for proposals that anger the public.

Secrecy does, of course, confer many advantages. By being able to work out the exploration in secret, the public remains ignorant and thus cannot be upset about specific proposals. Going with the salary analogy, if I can negotiate my salary in complete secrecy, then I can say things I would not say publicly and explore deals that I would not make in public. This is obviously advantageous to the deal makers.

Obviously, the same sort of reasoning can be applied to all aspects of government: if the ruling officials are required to operate in the public eye, then they cannot explore things without fear that the public would be upset by what they are doing. For example, if the local government wanted to install red-light cameras to improve revenues and had to discuss this matter openly, then the public might oppose this. As another example, if the state legislature wanted to cut a special deal for a company, discussing the payoff openly could be problematic.

Secrecy would, in all such cases, allow the ruling officials to work out various compromises without the troubling impact of public scrutiny. The advantages to the ruling officials and their allies are quite evident—so much so, it is no wonder that governments have long pushed for secrecy.

Naturally, there are some minor concerns that need to be addressed. One is that secrecy allows for deals that, while advantageous for those making the deals, are harmful to other members of the population. Those who think that government should consider the general welfare would probably find this sort of thing problematic.

Another trivial point of concern is the possibility of corruption. After all, secrecy certainly serves as an enabler for corruption, while transparency tends to reduce corruption. The easy reply is that corruption is only of concern to those who think that corruption is a bad thing, as opposed to an opportunity for enhanced revenue for select individuals. Put that way, it sounds delightful.

A third matter is that such secrecy bypasses the ideal of the democratic system: that government is open and that matters of state are publicly discussed by the representatives so that the people have an opportunity to be aware of what is occurring and have a role in the process. This is obviously only of concern to those misguided few who value the ideals of such a system. Those realists and pragmatists who know the value of secrecy know that involving the people is a path to trouble. Best to keep such matters away from them, to allow their betters to settle matters behind closed doors.

A fourth minor concern is that making rational decisions about secret deals is rather difficult. When asked what I think about TPP, all I can say is that I am concerned that it is secret, but cannot say anything about the content—because I have no idea what is in it. While those who wrote it know what is in there (as do the few senators who have seen it), discussion of its content is not possible—which makes deciding about the matter problematic. The easy answer is that since we do not matter, we do not need to know.


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