David Frum: Government Was Better When it Could Make Sweetheart Deals and Kill People in Absolute Secrecy

Newsweek's David Frum hocked a wet one in the eye of transparency advocates during CNN's OutFront on Tuesday. The segment, which featured Politifact's Bill Adair, Roland Martin, and CNN host Tom Foreman, was ostensibly about whether President Obama's failure to meet his transparency promises disqualified him from attacking Romney for doing business with the Swiss. 

Let's begin the transcript with Frum's entrance: 

David Frum: I'm a big believer in government accountability, but transparency is the most overrated concept in government.

It doesn't do what you want it to do, it's usually not desirable, it breeds cynicism. And of course, it's counter-productive.

Tom Foreman: I'm a voter, I want to know who the president's sitting down with.

Frum: You think you do, but you don't really. What you want is an effective administration that delivers positive results, and that means the president needs to have some privacy for his deliberation.

Think about the publishing of the visitor logs. What does that mean in practical terms? The president wants to hear somebody's point of view, or maybe he doesn't even want to hear that person's point of view, but he grants them the courtesy of a visit. Now it's published. Now he has to invite six other people whose points of view he also doesn't want to hear. We waste his time, and the way we get around it is we meet at the Starbucks across the street. 

The bit about Starbucks is a reference to the Obama administration's practice of meeting lobbyists at coffee joints near the White House grounds in order to get around the disclosure requirements established by...the Obama administration.

Frum is right that transparency hasn't exactly stopped government officials from doing bad things, anymore than lobbying disclosure requirements have stopped special interests from gorging themselves in Washington. In fact, I'd argue that by exposing the ubiquity of shady dealing in Washington, the transparency movement has normalized shady dealing. 

But Frum seems to think that transparency advocates have somehow brought Washington to a stand-still (as if that were a bad thing). This is not true, and Frum fails to mention a single policy he'd like to see enacted that is currently being held up by the evil forces of sunlight (once the greatest disinfectant, now only so-so). 

But wait! There's more! 

CNN contributor Roland Martin gets in on the debate as well: 

Foreman: Roland, if that's the case and if everybody knows it, what did Obama make all these promises for?

Roland Martin: It's called politics. That's what it's called. Frankly, I have three words for all of this: Waste. Of. Time. This is one of those things in a long campaign you want to attack your opponent and chip away at their credibility to say, "Oh my God, they're hiding something."

Let's go back to 2008. From then until now, you still have all these wackos on the right who want to see President Obama's college transcripts. "Why is he hiding them? What's going on?"

Foreman: That's a fair point. 

Martin: None of this has anything to do with housing, with getting a job, with getting education, with health care. All it is is a campaign move to try and chip away with a person. It has nothing to do with policy.

Frankly, it doesn't excite me at all.

Host: You know what Roland, you raise a good point when you say it's a waste of time.

Bill, I kind of wonder if both campaigns love a waste of time like this, because it keeps the president from having to talk about jobs, which he does not want to talk about, and Mitt Romney from having to talk about being an out-of-touch elitist, which he doesn't want to talk about.

Bill Adair: It's definitely put the Romney campaign on the offensive. In response to Roland and David, as a journalist I need to speak up for transparency. Transparency is good. We want to know what our government is doing. [David Frum begins shaking his head and mouthing "no."] Because of a lot of this data being out there, we do know more. We know a lot about the economic stimulus that wouldn't have been possible in the past. Transparency is a good thing.

Frum: You're advocating the class interests and the professional interest of journalists. But those are not the same as the needs of the public. We know more about what goes on inside these government negotiations than we ever did, and government accomplishes much less. In the days when we didn't know how the highway bill was put together, we got the Interstate highways.

Now that we do know how that happens, now that the president is promising to put negotiations on C-Span, which is a guarantee that nothing will ever happen, nothing gets done.

Government worked better when it was more discreet. It worked better in the 50s and 60s than it does today.

Tom: Roland, what would your message be to both camps.

Roland: SHUT UP. SHUT UP AND FOCUS ON POLICY. We know Mitt Romney's a rich guy. Got it. NEXT. 

Ah, yes: Government worked better during the days when it could inject black prisoners in Ohio with cancer cells and release mosquitos infected with dengue and yellow fever in isolated southern towns. (See Leonard Cole's The Eleventh Plague for more lovely details about the U.S.'s chemical and biological warfare experiments; Annie Jacobsen's Area 51 for a brief history of domestic testing of nuclear weapons.) 

That same spirit of secret "efficiency" led the U.S. to invade Laos, then Vietnam. And once we were mired in those places, secrecy killed thousands of U.S. servicemen who got stuck with the damn-near useless first generation M-16. That weapon, writes The New York Times' C.J. Chivers in The Gunjammed and rusted within days of it being issued, and U.S. servicemen often abandoned them or used them as hammers. Once the gun's uselessness was discovered, Pentagon brass began a campaign—not to recall them from battle, but to hide the mistake they made in rushing the gun to the front (a decision brought about by congressional sweetheart deals and arms-maker pseudo-science). 

So yes, secrecy allows government to do what it wants more effectively. But in the golden age of "discretion" that Frum crows about, allowing the government do what it wanted without nosey taxpayers looking over its shoulder saw American citizens treated like guinea pigs and cannon fodder. Which is to say, voters cannot hope to guarantee a positive result, much less prevent a negative one, if they are kept in the dark. 

For more on this very unique form of psychosis, which Frum shares with David Brooks, see Matt Welch and Radley Balko.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • R C Dean||

    You can't have accountability without transparency.

    Government worked better when it was more discreet a hell of a lot smaller in every dimension. It worked better in the 50s and 60s than it does today.

  • mustard||

    It wasn't smaller in airline regulation, trucking regulation, derivatives regulation, fairness doctrine, etc. You're wishing for the past that didn't even exist.

    We could use a healthy return to the real 50s and 60s, when sane regulation wasn't controversial, before libertards could run their mouths dissing the effectiveness of community economic planning just because Gorbachev couldn't handle his job.

  • John Thacker||

    I am assuming that this is a troll, so I am wondering why you didn't include a paen to reasonable regulation of the race question, which should not be dismissed just because DeKlerk couldn't handle his job.

  • R C Dean||

    It wasn't smaller in airline regulation, trucking regulation,

    There was government rate regulation then, fair enough. Its an apples and oranges thing, but I wonder if all the other regulations piled on those industries since (more than) offset the repeal of rate regulation.

    derivatives regulation,

    What didn't exist couldn't be regulated.

    fairness doctrine, etc.

    Also repealed, true.

    Are you saying that, on the whole, the repeal of the fairness doctrine and interstate commerce rate-setting offsets all the regulations adopted since? Sure you wanna go with that?

  • KPres||

    By every conceivable measure, the US economy is significantly more regulated than it was in the 50s and 60s.

    http://voteview.com/Fiorina_Ke.....gister.htm

    http://menghusblog.files.wordp......png?w=640

  • KPres||

  • KPres||

  • KPres||

  • KPres||

  • Mr. FIFY||

    If Frum says things, it's best to just laugh and mock him.

  • tarran||

    This would be the textbook example of an Ad Hominem attack, if leveled at someone other than Frum.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    I live to serve... voluntarily.

  • ||

    I'm a big believer in government accountability, but...

    That's all I need to know to know this guy's a fucktard. Anyone who says "I'm all for X, but..." or "I'm not an X, but..." is a lying liar who lies. And a hypocrite.

  • ||

    "...but,": the ultimate weasel word.

  • db||

    Weasel-butt.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Should we call the people who use it but-weasels?

  • Drake||

    "What you want is an effective administration that delivers positive results"

    What we have is a secretive ineffective administration that delivers negative results. I'd like to know what the fuck they are doing.

  • ||

    No, I want neither. What I want is an administration that gets the fuck out of the way. Or, preferably, no administration at all.

  • Tulpa the White||

    Precisely. Everything Frum says (which I partially agree with, as far as the dinner guest records go) is predicated on the administration being competent.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    ...it breeds cynicism...

    That's a feature, not a bug.

  • Gladstone||

    So are you making the "TEAM RED would be so much better if they actually believed in government" argument?

  • Stormy Dragon||

    No, I'm saying we'd be better off if most people were more cynical than they are now, so if transparency makes people more cynical about the government, I consider that an extra bonus, not a problem as Frum suggests.

  • Killazontherun||

    You think you do, but you don't really.

    You would think the last thing I would want to be is a crackhead sucking dick for a fix, but no, that is close, but not really. The last thing I would want to be is David Frum.

  • Brett L||

    At least you'd be getting something concrete for the fellatio.

  • Tulpa the White||

    He actually has a point on that tiny sliver of the topic. There are a lot of negative unintended consequences (RC notwithstanding) that arise from making negotiations public.

    Of course, negotiations being public is really not the biggest transparency concern we should have -- it's that we know when the govt is running guns across the border and spying on our telephone conversations, etc.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Negotiations are a red herring. We'd probably settle for what the government is actually DOING.

  • R C Dean||

    There are a lot of negative unintended consequences (RC notwithstanding)

    Am I gonna hafta pay rent for living in your head, Tulpa?

  • Tulpa the White||

    It's well established that Frum is a douche -- apparently he's the "conservative viewpoint" for Newsweek now. So his attitude is unsurprising.

    However, Foreman also steers (intentionally?) the talk about transparency to the most dubiously valuable type of transparency, the White House visitor records, which enables Frum and the other guy to swat down transparency in general more easily.

    You know what, if Obama wants to keep his visitors secret, fine by me. I'm more concerned about the govt's coercive activities, not the dinner guests... and that's the shit that BO is trying most desperately to hide.

  • John||

    Frum is a classic too clever by half con man. He starts with the entirely reasonable sounding idea that the President ought not to have to inform the world of his dinner guests. And then he ends up with that meaning that it is okay for the President to kill someone without providing any explanation.

  • R C Dean||

    If you were to limit that to the President can kill someone at his dinner parties without any explanation, I'd sign up.

    Libertarian bona fides be damned.

  • Pro Libertate||

    We could make the grounds of the White House absolutely sovereign to the sitting president, in exchange for the office losing all of the extraconstitutional powers it's usurped over the years. So he could execute, torture, whatever. With the caveat that it is illegal to forcibly require anyone to actually go to the White House.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Are we talking about him being able to kill just dinner guests or anyone?

  • Paul.||

    I could understand administration hacks making this argument, and some of it might even make sense depending on how charitable I was feeling on that day (hint: not much, not usually)

    But for members of the media to make this argument, the very people who fancy themselves the "gatekeepers of democracy", who say they deserve the special privileges of access and information... it just chills one to the core.

    When our so-called gatekeepers of democracy are telling us that they don't even want to know what the President is doing, it's time to burn this established media paradigm to the ground.

  • Pro Libertate||

    One guy. One guy making unknown, unaccountable decisions that can affect the whole nation.

    This is not only contrary to our political framework; it's also contrary to common sense. It's not like we elect paragons of virtue with great intelligence and ability, so why anyone would advocate this kind of power in a single person is beyond me. I'm against that kind of power in the government's hands at all, but to place it in the president's--any president's--is folly of the worst sort.

  • Mainer2||

    Unfortunately I know more than a few people who think some hack politician spawned by the Chicago machine is indeed a paragon of virtue with great intelligence and ability.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Against stupidity
    The very gods themselves
    Contend in vain.

  • ||

    That's not a very good haiku

  • Pro Libertate||

    Not haiku, German verse from Schiller. You will enjoy it or there will be consequences.

    In the original German: "Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens."

  • Paul.||

    *sounds of wooden flute while cherry blossoms float on the wind*

  • Rasilio||

    But if the government is open and transparent who needs the journalist? What is there for him to expose and therefore win his pulitzer?

    No journalists need and crave secrecy just as much as the government so that they can be that gatekeeper of democracy because it is only through them that information comes to light and therefore they can control what information gets out into the public.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Not really. Complete openness, maybe, but whistleblower protections and FOIA leave journalists with a role to play.

  • Metazoan||

    At this rate straw man manufacturing will be surging in the US in no time.

  • junyo||

    Frum: You think you do, but you don't really. What you want is an effective administration that delivers positive results, and that means the president needs to have some privacy for his deliberation.

    Think about the publishing of the visitor logs. What does that mean in practical terms? The president wants to hear somebody's point of view, or maybe he doesn't even want to hear that person's point of view, but he grants them the courtesy of a visit. Now it's published. Now he has to invite six other people whose points of view he also doesn't want to hear. We waste his time, and the way we get around it is we meet at the Starbucks across the street.

    Or, you could just be a grown up and say, 'Yeah, I wanted to talk with that guy, because of [insert reason you believe to be valid here]. Those 6 other guys can suck a dick.' Frum's underlying problem is he assumes the public is too stupid to be able to deal with the reality of seeing how the sausage gets made, and the politic class is too timid to actually cook effectively with the diners standing in the kitchen.

    The unfortunate thing is, his insipid rhetorical overlay set aside, those core assumptions are largely correct.

  • kinnath||

    The problem started when a bunch of 1%ers got together one swelting summer in Philedelphia and then locked themsevles into a building to write a set of rules in total secrecy for running the future government of the united states.

    They set a terrible precendent that we have never been able to crush.

  • Paul.||

    But they added the commerce clause which nullified everything in the rules, so... it all evened out.

  • Mainer2||

    No, they added the taxing authority which nullified everything in the rules. Try to keep up.

  • Pro Libertate||

    And they gave us the Anything Goes Tax and Spending Clause, absolutely not thinking or publishing the idea that the power to tax is the power to destroy.

  • DaveAnthony||

    Cute, but not really relevant. They then had to sell those rules to the 13 colonies. They weren't just imposed by executive order or passed by a congress before anyone even read or knew what was in those set of rules.

  • Paul.||

    They had to declare independence to find out what was in it.

  • kinnath||

    +1776

  • kinnath||

    It wasn't that cute, but it is something I think about everytime government transparency questions come up.

    And I think you address the fundamentals of the conclusion I always come back to:

    Invention, investigation, some negotiations really need some amount of privacy for progress to be made. But deliberations (legislative actions) and administration (executive actions) require brilliant sunlight at all times.

    Frum is a asshole of the highest degree to in anyway imply that because the president needs to meet with constituents in privcy for government to work well, that the president also needs to be able to secretly order the execution of people without due process so that government can be efficient and effective.

  • DJF||

    David Frum is a perfect example of why the US needs tighter immigration controls.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    David Frum is a perfect example of why (fill in the blank)

  • T||

    I start drinking earlier and earlier in the day?

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    David Frum is a perfect example of why the plumbing in my building backs up occasionally.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Frum: You think you do, but you don't really. What you want is an effective administration that delivers positive results, and that means the president needs to have some privacy for his deliberation.

    Frum can go find a sharp bayonet and fellate it with his paternalistic horseshit.

    Frum: You're advocating the class interests and the professional interest of journalists. But those are not the same as the needs of the public. We know more about what goes on inside these government negotiations than we ever did, and government accomplishes much less. In the days when we didn't know how the highway bill was put together, we got the Interstate highways.

    Which are now used as cudgel against the states and a workaround to the 10th Amendment (do what we say or we won't give you money to maintain this grossly expensive highway system we've planted in your state).

  • Tman||

    Or, as Rand Paul made so clear recently, EVEN OUR OWN MEMBERS OF THE GOVERNMENT didn't know what was in the recent highway bill because they were told to vote on it without possibly having a chance to see what was in it first.

    Arguing that transparency has made governing more difficult is fucking ridiculous.

  • Fluffy||

    I think part of the issue here is that there is a contingent of transparency advocates who are completely wedded to the ad hominem fallacy.

    I mean the real fallacy, where the speaker of an idea is relevant to determining the truth or falsehood of the idea.

    When people want to know who the President speaks to, they're saying they don't want to judge the policies he advocates on their merits, they want to see who he's been talking to so they can declare the policies he advocates to be in so-and-so's "interest".

    This type of transparency is like disclosure rules for campaign finance. It caters to people who don't want to have to listen to an argument and then think about it.

    But to jump from (correctly) lamenting this "transparency theater" to saying we'd be better off without transparency is typical Frumian authoritarian nonsense.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    When the government is in the business of stealing from one group to give to another group, I can understand why some people would want to know. But your comment still stands, most people are idiots.

  • Brett L||

    I don't really care about transparency per se. If the government were small enough that their supersecret negotiations on whether or not to serve chicken or beef in the Capitol cafeteria was the biggest issue, I wouldn't give a shit.

    However, given the level of power that they wield, any and every arrow in our quiver to exert some form of check on their power is appropriate.

    So in that way, I'm with Frum. When anyone could wander into Jefferson's dining room and sit down, nobody cared who he had dinner with. That is not the situation now.

  • Pro Libertate||

    We--the people, I mean--should have the ability to have anything and everything the government does, records, or says audited by an independent third-party auditor.

  • Killazontherun||

    I think part of the issue here is that there is a contingent of transparency advocates who are completely wedded to the ad hominem fallacy.

    If this were exclusively a debating society I would agree with you, but it isn't. It's a blog for talking about shit, and dishing shit, hence the the name, 'Hit'n'Run.'

  • Killazontherun||

    To expand because I only dealt with the niggling aside, I mean the real fallacy, where the speaker of an idea is relevant to determining the truth or falsehood of the idea.

    When people want to know who the President speaks to, they're saying they don't want to judge the policies he advocates on their merits, they want to see who he's been talking to so they can declare the policies he advocates to be in so-and-so's "interest". The rules of argument and political interest are entirely separate concerns even in matters of policy given there are always be net beneficiaries of a policy and a separate list of people who have to pay for that policy no matter if the policy originated from Krugman or Milton Friedman.

  • Fluffy||

    This is true, but that is easily apparent by examining the policy.

    When Obama favors green power giveaways, anyone with half a brain can read the policy and identify who's getting the gravy and who's getting the shaft.

    Obsessing about finding out who the President had lunch with on June 12th adds absolutely nothing.

    To me, "transparency" should mean "I get to see how much of the CIA's budget goes towards secret rendition flights" or "I get to know what the details of my police chief's pension are". It doesn't mean "I need to know who ate lunch with whom, because government is like junior high school".

  • Pro Libertate||

    I don't agree at all. Yes, the information can be twisted and misused. That's no reason at all to allow government officials to conduct business in secret. No good purpose is served by allowing that.

  • Fluffy||

    Sure there is.

    Vermont has what is known as an open meetings law.

    They're obsessed with making sure that all meetings are "open to the public" that if I see two state reps standing next to each other and walk up to them and say I don't like this year's budget, we just violated the open meeting law.

    Constituent communication is not "conducting government business". It's me petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. As such, it should not be subject to any regulation or limitation, including the requirement that somebody fill out a form every time I do it.

    If you want to have a public record created every time the President meets with the Cabinet, fine. Creating a public record every time the President speaks to a constituent is not fine. It certainly doesn't contribute anything to worthwhile "transparency".

    If you think it's "transparency" when we can find out who attended a meaningless business roundtable at the White House, but the state secrets privilege is invoked to protect torturers and illegal wiretappers, you're crazy.

  • Paul.||

    They're obsessed with making sure that all meetings are "open to the public" that if I see two state reps standing next to each other and walk up to them and say I don't like this year's budget, we just violated the open meeting law.

    So that could slow down government considerably.

    Hmm...

  • Metazoan||

    This is true. Just because hated group X wants policy Y doesn't necessarily mean policy Y is a bad idea.

  • John||

    As I said above, Frumm is just a con man who takes one reasonable point and uses it as a way to support an entirely unreasonable point.

  • R C Dean||

    If all that went on in the Oval Office was the philosophical discussion of ideas, I'd agree more.

    But since it mostly consists of whacking up ill-gotten gains amongst the apparatchiks, I'd kinda like to know who is sitting down to wet their beaks.

    And, if White House visitor logs are too easy to get around, I have a solution:

    The White House, all its offices, and living quarters for people who work there are put behind a moat, a twenty foot wall, and a minefield. Staff is not allowed to leave. Anyone who wants in has to sign in.

  • Killazontherun||

    Even if we are talking about a non corrupt government the above post is kind of whacked. Look at the job description of the presidency as listed in the Constitution, there are no ideas there, and no mention of going up to Harvard once a year to officiate their debating club. I don't want to pick on Fluffy cause he is usually a dead on kind of guy, but the assumptions in the above post are peculiar.

  • BarryD||

    "it's usually not desirable, it breeds cynicism"

    Yeah, it's important that we keep the sheeple thinking that politicians are trying to help them in every way possible, not that politicians tend to be self-serving, corrupt sociopathic narcissists who need to be watched.

  • IceTrey||

    The problems with the M-16 can be laid at the feet of one man Robert McNamara. Stoner called for the rifle to have a chrome lined chamber and to use cleaner burning "stick" powder. In order to save a few bucks McNamara ordered no chrome lining and changed the powder to dirtier "ball" type. Then to top it off they told the troops they didn't ever have to be cleaned. As Stoner designed the M-16 it was fine. It was only after the poloticos got a hold of it that it let our troops down.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    McNamara has a special seat in hell.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I believe he also changed the bullet shape to one that tumbled less and caused less damage, because it was standard and cheaper.

  • 0x90||

    Frum: "You think you do, but you don't really. What you want is an effective administration that delivers positive results, and that means the president needs to have some privacy for his deliberation."

    Adopt the same attitude with respect to my income (taxes voluntary, no IRS), and we're in business. You produce results, and I'll give you the opportunity to keep on doing it; don't, and I won't. Either way, we won't call one another's methods into question. Deal?

    I didn't think so.

  • ||

    If Romney was somehow able to win, I would love to be able to walk up to Frum when he starts bloviating about Romney's secret cabals with Mormon priest and evil Swiss bankers and tell him (or any of our resident assholes that defend him):

    "You don't really want to know. You just want him to deliver positive results so sit down and shut the fuck up!"

  • ant1sthenes||

    Frum is nominally a conservative. He'll probably have Romney's dick deeper down his throat than Obama's.

  • John C. Randolph||

    So, why in the world does Newsweek want to keep this boot-licking idiot on their payroll? IS it the standard leftard rag's "token right-wing moron" gig?

    -jcr

  • NL_||

    Frum is basically admitting that government can only operate in secrecy because an informed public would never accept the deal-making and back-scratching that forms the basis for policy.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement