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.