The Philosophical Underpinnings of Transparency


Alex Bednar

The basic premise of government of the people, by the people, for the people is a tradition that Western Democrats take for granted. What we on the one hand suggest is a basic principle of our governance, and which has its roots in a long tradition of struggles and challenges, is often quietly discarded by the reckless audacity of those elected to serve the people. This abuse of power – this wanton disregard for the foundations of our democracy – is fostered not by an atmosphere of greed or malevolence, but by one of complacency and lack of information in the hands of the people. Recently, however, instances of government overspending and corruption have led people to question the authenticity of their government and the legitimacy of those elected to it. People are beginning to question whether and to what extent elected representatives truly represent the wishes of the people, and they are beginning to demand greater accountability. In response, governments must engage citizens and share more information to increase confidence in our leaders.

The desire for honesty and accountability can be traced as far back as the first human conceptions of fairness and of right and wrong. These conceptions reached their zenith in the latter half of the 1700s, a period in which both the United States and France experienced revolutions against autocratic, unaccountable governments. One individual whose work clearly represents the ideas fueling change at the time was Massachusetts lawyer James Otis Jr. He coined the famous revolutionary war slogan ‘taxation without representation is tyranny’. He also wrote extensively in support of the ideas behind the American Revolution and he challenged the works of Edmund Burke, who was critical of the Revolution in France. About legislatures, Otis writes, “a group of men, accountable to nobody, ought to be trusted by nobody”[i]. And now, though our politicians are elected in a fair and transparent manner, there remain inconsistencies between the expectations of citizens and the actions of those who were elected to represent them. More accountability is needed. Reviewing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, a fundamental document of the French Revolution, one notes article 15, which states that “every community has the right to demand of all its agents an account of their conduct”[ii] People desired this accountability strongly enough at the time to overthrow a government that was not providing it, and though we have come great lengths towards achieving a more measurable balance, this accountability is still sought, because it is still challenged. To this end, information about how government operates must be more accessible to citizens, in order to maintain faith in politicians and our political institutions. A policy to help achieve this exists, in the form of a concept I like to call taxparency.

Taxparency offers a way to restore faith in our political institutions and to increase accountability by putting information directly in the hands of citizens, thereby improving their level of engagement and the quality of political debate. The policy is achievable and a similar idea was recently announced in the United Kingdom, while American politicians have also begun to explore the issue[iii][iv]. Simply put, tax-payers receive a statement of taxation from the government, detailing where and how the money they paid in income tax was spent, based on percentages from the government`s own budget breakdown. By doing so, such a policy will take publicly available information and insert it directly into the hands of citizens. Taxpayers will have a new tool with which to learn where government spends their money, and will receive a new personal connection to government, which will allow them to better hold their representatives to account. Because citizens want to be involved in the complex game modern governance has become, it is time they worked with politicians to ensure they are dealt a better hand.

Alex Bednar is a 2013 MPP candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He also holds a BA (Hons) in History with a minor in Classical Studies from Queen’s University.  His interests, while vast, include fiscal accountability and transparency.  He currently works part time as a Research Assistant in the City of Toronto’s Tower Renewal Office.

[i] Paine, Thomas. Common Sense and the Rights of Man. London: Phoenix, 1993, 103.

[ii] “The Rights Of Man.” The Rights Of Man. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

[iii] Collinson, Patrick. “Income Tax Statement Opens Government Spending to Scrutiny.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 June 0039. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

[iv] “The Taxpayer Receipt Act: 112th Congress (2011-2012)H.R.1527.IH.” N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    I’m not sure I buy your philosophical underpinnings for ‘taxparency’. For one, you don’t much mention any philosophical underpinning other than quoting a few revolutionary Franco-American sayings. Then, you conflate accountability with a well functioning representative democracy. Accountability may be necesary to a well run representative democracy, but it’s not sufficient alone to its full and proper execution. You seem also to conflate ‘philosophy’ – a somewhat neutral term – with ideology. Your proposal seems based more on an anti-tax ideology than on a lofty notion of representive democracy.

    What you might mean to argue is that there isn’t enough accountability in our system of governance, but by abstractly connecting it to a vague, ideological ‘philosophy’, you’ve failed yourself to account truly for why ‘taxparency’ to the degree you’re advocating is necessary.

    Finally, a counter point: couldn’t one argue that a truly well-functioning open society ought to be able to aspire to a greater level of trust and mutual accountability, without constantly suspecting that someone is out to get us? I don’t proffer a naive view of democracy; rather, a truly mature and democratic society should understand that many shortfalls in government can be blamed partly on a increasingly recalcitrant citizenry. We get the government we deserve. If we hope to deserve more, then we have to be prepared to play a role.

  2. Philip says:

    Some valid points, but how can we be prepared to “play a role” if we don’t have the proper information?

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