The term "public" can best be understood, for these purposes, as deriving from the Latin populus, literally the people, or poplicus, literally pertaining to the people - both of which are probably related to the term pubes, meaning "adult" (and the root of our term pubic hair - just saying). In other words, we can understand objects and subjects that are public as being commonly held things - indeed, res publica, root of our word republic, is often translated into commonwealth though it just as easily could translated as public thing - which is what commonwealth means, of course - a commonly held property.
Thus, whatever is held commonly, with the intent of serving the common good (or at least the general will - which is not necessarily the same thing) may be understood as falling into our conception of the public sphere. Now, here is where a little specification is necessary - in modern nation-states everything that is public is part of or administered by the state.
Hold up a second. This isn't something to be taken for granted. States are generally understood today as the exclusive sovereign institutions in human society - they of course weren't always so (and frankly, despite the myth of the state, still aren't), but rather where one of an assortment of institutions that had demonstrated varying degrees or characteristics along a spectrum of more-like-a-state or less-like-a-state. So what constitutes the whole sovereignty package? First and most importantly is the right to use compulsion to achieve political, economic, or social goals - in modern states, where the state claims the exclusive right to legitimately use force for internal adjudicative purposes and external (and sometimes internal) national security purposes this is referred to as the monopoly of force.
Secondly, states manage "commons," that is to say commonly held property to be used and maintained by the public for the public good or in support of the general will. Some of these are easily defined - parks, forests, museums, schools, roads, ports, and so on - while other are far more complicated to define - air, water, mineral wealth, electromagnetic bandwidth, and the like - but nonetheless these articles of the commonwealth are, in modern states, clearly under the purview of the state. Of course there is wild variation in terms as to what is and should be defined as the commonwealth depending upon ideology and culture, but the principle remains fairly universal nonetheless.
So, really, what is public can be defined as public falls into two different but mutually interactive categories - the state does things, on the one hand, and these things are dependent on mechanisms of compulsion - literally the ability to deprive individuals or groups, in part or in whole, of their life, liberty and/or property - even when they are enforcing voluntary agreements made between actors within society. On the other hand, states are the trustees of the public wealth - not just the treasury but every single commonly held idea, concept, object, institution, and structure. As such the state is both a conservator and an administrator.
This is the crux! The state is a referee; the state is a trustee; the state is a manager; but the state and the persons employed by that state - no matter how fancy their title or ornate their garments - is not an owner not if there is a private sphere. The concept of dominion, with its implication of subjugation of a people and a territory by a sovereign doesn't make a lick of sense if society exists as a private sphere, if the people are entitled to liberty in the sense of absence of oversight from the polity in any sense! Privacy is self-ownership, publicity is common-ownership, but neither is state-ownership!
Interlude for the Politically Minded: Why Rousseau?
Now, it should be noted, I have used here a conception of the state/society relationship that is derived from Rousseau's in his Social Contract - one which I find a in some ways an improvement on Hobbes' work in Leviathan and a substantial improvement on Locke's in The Second Treatise.
|The Good Mr. Rousseau (and hat) /|
Courtesy ClipArt Etc.
This is not to say that Locke and Hobbes might not be better for modeling different types of states at different moments and in different places in human history. Rather it is to say that in the contemporary political universe few, if any, states legitimate their existence in terms of the people trade X to a sovereign in exchange for the sovereign providing Y. Modern constitutions are the product of the political will of the people, filtered though it may be through elected mechanisms (or pseudo-democratic mechanisms in illiberal states), deciding to generate a constitution at such a moment that they determine to, in such a form that they determine to, and further, while they may have complicated mechanisms for doing so, they reserve the right to change their constitution upon the emergence of a substantial change in the general will of the people - there is no need for tyranny to justify revolution, only a change in norms or beliefs, and indeed, there is no need for revolution, only the ballot box. One may dare to imagine that Rousseau has achieved his goals through the emergence of a Burkean mechanism of expression - but then, that may be stretching things to far.
But I don't think so.
So far I have spent substantial time on the concept of public and its contemporary co-identification with polity. But this has only been foundation building - now comes the question of the moment - what is transparency?
First, Merriam-Webster's definitions of transparent, the adjective which transparency is derived from:
having the property of transmitting light without appreciable scattering so that bodies lying beyond are seen clearly; pellucid; allowing the passage of a specified form of radiation (as X-rays or ultraviolet light); fine or sheer enough to be seen through; diaphanous; free from pretense or deceit; frank; easily detected or seen through; obvious; readily understood; characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices
Then we have the definition provided by the anti-corruption nongovernmental organization (NGO) Transparency International:
Transparency is about shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions. It is knowing why, how, what, and how much. Transparency ensures that public officials, civil servants, managers, board members and businessmen act visibly and understandably, and report on their activities. And it means that the general public can hold them to account. It is the surest way of guarding against corruption, and helps increase trust in the people and institutions on which our futures depend.
The Transparency & Accountability Initiative defines transparency as:
As a principle, public officials, civil servants, managers and directors of companies and organisations and board trustees have a duty to act visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability.
Simply making information available is not sufficient to achieve transparency. Large amounts of raw information in the public domain may breed opacity rather than transparency.
Information should be managed and published so that it is:
Relevant and accessible: Information should be presented in plain and readily comprehensible language and formats appropriate for different stakeholders. It should retain the detail and disaggregation necessary for analysis, evaluation and participation. Information should be made available in ways appropriate to different audiences.
Timely and accurate: Information should be made available in sufficient time to permit analysis, evaluation and engagement by relevant stakeholders. This means that information needs to be provided while planning as well as during and after the implementation of policies and programmes. Information should be managed so that it is up-to-date, accurate, and complete.
Fair enough. One more - the Congressional Research Service issued a report on the meaning and use of transparency and secrecy in the Executive Branch in 2012 authored by Wendy Ginsberg, Maeve P. Carey,
L. Elaine Halchin, and Natalie Keegan who assert that:
transparency comprises not only the disclosure of government information, but also the access, comprehension, and use of this information by the public. Transparency, as such, requires a public that can acquire, understand, and use the information that it receives from the federal government. This concept of transparency, however, is not the only possible designation of the term.
Well, there is a lot to work with here, but as far as I can see there is one clear point for departure - transparency, in a political sense, is a comparatively new term borrowed, as so many concepts in political science and philosophy have been, from our peers in the hard sciences. There transparency refers to a phenotypical characteristic of an object of study, literally meaning that a material has the characteristic of allowing light to move through it comparatively unimpeded. This allows for internal characteristics of the object of study to be observed and cataloged without having to be dismantled - clearly a useful trait for the scholar - or for the applied technician tasked with maintaining something - or someone. Indeed, it is so useful that we actively have pursued technologies that render non-transparent objects functionally transparent, allowing us to avoid more violent methods of inspection, sometimes using non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that aren't blocked by the matter in question, as in the case of X-rays, and sometimes using other techniques, such as sound vibrations in the instance of sonograms.
|Lenses / Courtesy ClipArt Etc.|
In terms of contemporary politics the term is used almost identically, if perhaps metaphorically. Human beings have, as stated above, generated polities which are both alienated from society and exist purely as instruments for society. The act of creating a polity through institutions, be they laws or the bodies of human beings empowered to enforce, generate, and adjudicate those laws, is one of engineering. States are dynamic machines intended to achieve particular outcomes conceptualized by the general will and/or for the common good. Yet the assumption is that states will never perfectly fulfill this obligation or, leastwise, will be unable to do so ad infinitum. New interstate and intrastate environmental challenges emerge; new values begin to influence the general will; mistakes in rational analysis and policy generation, administration, and adjudication will occur; immoral and incapable officers of the state will receive office; inefficiencies, inconsistencies, contradictions, loopholes, on and on - in any dynamic instrument the expectation is not that failure might occur but that it will inevitably occur and that, should small failures accumulate then, over time, they might lead to a catastrophic failure.
This is why we check our oil, why we kick our tires, why have our car inspected - hell, why we wash our windshields - so that we see trouble coming before it becomes catastrophic.
The Necessity and Limits of Transparency
This is political transparency - it is the condition of being able to observe the functioning, or malfunctioning, of one's state through comparatively simple, regular, and efficient methods so that corruption may be stomped out, factional in-fighting quelled, unnecessary inefficiencies and ineconomies removed, overreaches cut off at the arm, miscarriages of justice righted, and tyrannies prevented.
Indeed, if we are to claim that the state is the instrument of managing the republic, the commonwealth, the public good, and we are further to claim that our state is a democratic-republic, one in which the people, not merely the officers, by all rights must have a role to play in that management, even if it is limited by practicalities of knowledge and time, then transparency is an expectation both necessary and proper. How can a public good be managed without the knowledge of the public as to its workings?
The answer is simple - it cannot, no more than any trustor can be assured that his or her trustee is managing their holdings well and properly if that trustee reveals none of their transactions or holdings or, equally, if they falsify those transactions and holdings.
And yet, as always seems to be the case, transparency also has its limits, governed not by Platonist ideals but by practical realities. That which is most crucial mirrors that key limit on privacy already mentioned, generic but true - the need to limit transparency in order to prevent or attenuate existential crisis. Certain knowledge must be kept secret because, at least in theory, its revelation would empower the potential sources of the existential crisis, be they internal or external. Imperfect and vague though this may remain at this stage, still a reasonable conceptualization of transparency is now practical:
1. Transparency that is perfect is ideal, however by its very nature allows for the empowerment of threats to individuals, society, and polity (some of which enshrine the elimination of transparency);
2. The elimination of transparency in order to eliminate these threats constitutes a cost disproportionate to the benefits under almost all circumstances;
3. The maintenance of transparency in the face of existential threats, however, also constitutes an unacceptable cost;
4. Therefore the standard should follow the doctrine of the mean: privacy should be held inviolate insofar as it does not allow for the empowerment of existential threats.
We are left with almost exactly the same virtues and failings as previously with privacy, but a framework, at least, is now emerging.
To be continued in the First Interlude