The Changing Meaning of Transparency

Decrying the perils of big business and financial fraud in the early 1900s, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that “sunlight is…the best of disinfectants.” Brandeis’s metaphor for the power of transparency to regulate and rein in the abuses of corporate and governmental power became central to progressive reform in the early 20th century. But according to a recent paper, the goals of transparency advocates today—and the political and regulatory values associated with Brandeis’s sunlight symbol—have drastically shifted. Despite transparency’s progressive origins, modern advocates now pursue a more libertarian, skeptical bent that aims to make government not more democratic and functional but smaller and less effective. According to the paper’s author—Columbia Law School professor David Pozen—sunlight laws can return to their progressive origins. But doing so will first require that…

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