Democracy's Dilemma

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
May 15, 2019

The key term that recurs throughout Henry Farrell’s and Bruce Schneier’s essay is “trust.” That is no surprise, as the concept unites both authors’ bodies of work: Schneier, a security expert, and Farrell, a political scientist, have each written books about it. Security enables trust, and trust enables a functioning democracy.

Small wonder, then, that these two have teamed up to propose a starting point for improving democracy by conceptualizing it as an information system in which distrust is a security problem. By and large, I find this a useful way to frame the issue. However, their essay underplays the value of a longstanding U.S. tradition—anonymous speech—that the authors recognize as creating vectors for attacks on trust. At the same time, it overlooks some known vulnerabilities that anti-democratic elements have already exploited to undermine institutional trust.

One component of building and maintaining trust is transparency. Transparency is essential in a democracy. A democratic government must subject itself to public oversight if it is to retain its legitimacy. The United States has open court proceedings, notices of proposed agency rulemakings, public comment periods, the Freedom of Information Act, and other sunshine laws; it even has C-SPAN. Measures that enhance government transparency serve to bolster the public’s trust in government institutions.

Read the full piece at the Boston Review.