Are Transparency and Generality in Conflict

Tyler writes:

I am personally a bigger fan of transparency than generality, noting that the two often conflict.  What if only some people need helping?  The best policy response won’t be perfectly general, nor should we force it to be.

I don’t see the conflict. Both are limiting principles. So a principle of generality will rule out non-general but transparent policies, and a principle of transparency will rule out general but non-transparent policies. To say that a rule or policy that passes through one filter might get stopped by the other is not to say the filters are in conflict. There are many rules that will pass through both.

I sympathize with Tyler’s point about generality, though. Of course, the rule “If you’re a citizen, and you’re in need, then the state gives you some help” is in fact perfectly general. It applies to all citizens. But of course, “If you’re a citizen, and you’re a member of an industry whose profits are threatened by foreign competition, then the state gives you a subsidy” is general, too. The point of the generality requirement is to prevent the state from being able to see characteristics of its citizens that are irrelevant to the legitimate functions of government. If the state can’t officially know that you’re 6’2″, it cannot use its power to predate on taxpayers for the benefit of the people that are 6’2″. I don’t think it is absurd to suppose that there may be some way to formulate the principle such that allows the state to see citizens in need, so that it can send them transfers, but does not allow the state to see or act on the basis of the interests of the lumber industry. If the state can only see citizens, and not subclasses of citizens, then preferential treatment, good and bad is prohibited. But if it can officially see some subclasses, then the criteria for membership in that subclass is going to become a political football.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center