As problematic as “fake news” is, and as dangerous as the label can be, maybe “true news” is equally corrosive. The contemporary world is giving us more reality and more truth than we can comfortably handle — and that, as much as the lack of a common enemy since the end of the Cold War, may explain the decline of the liberal world order that I lamented in a recent column.I think the core of Cowen's observation is correct. Increased transparency is making it more challenging for the establishment to conduct their self-serving business in the old ways. They are not ashamed, just irritated.
Fake news, after all, has been with us for a long time, whether in the form of overly optimistic dispatches from the Vietnam War or reports of Paul McCartney’s death. And that’s not counting the under- or unreported stories we now know to be true, on such things as Kennedy’s affairs, Johnson’s corruption or Reagan’s dementia.
Back then, you couldn’t even Google the right answer — yet somehow we coped. What we did have, at least in America and most of the West, was a relatively well-centered culture, rich in the humanities, which gave people perspective and a series of unifying national “myths.” Even if America never was quite the land of the free and the home of the brave, it helped that most people believed it was.
Fast forward to the current day. Probably the single biggest change in American life has been a dramatic decline in the cost and inconvenience of getting information. On just about every topic, it is possible to get access to virtually every possible point of view, usually at zero marginal cost.
And the truest, biggest news concerns the failings of our elites. I am not referring just to U.S. elites. Whatever specific failings they may have, there is a more general problem with elites: They are held responsible for the success or failure of the larger society. This is not always fair, because business cycles are hard to forecast or prevent, foreign affairs do not always go well, and bad luck can scuttle the best of plans. But today’s elite no longer have the cultural shield that once made it harder for outsiders to take a crack at them, however good or bad you may consider those elites to be.
Cowen almost seems to be trying to generate sympathy for the establishment. I have little such sympathy. The establishment (of either party) are self-serving. The fact that greater transparency is making it more difficult for them to continue their corrupt incompetence is a desirable feature in my book, not a bug.
There are relatively straight-forward responses to increased transparency. Cowen's is to lament the good old days when the establishment members could fix their deals in the backroom and ignore the citizenry.
Another, more positive response would be to reduce the corruption so that the greater transparency would be an opportunity to celebrate ethical establishment behavior.
Yet another positive response would be for the establishment to raise their effectiveness game. Make sure that the policies you pursue actually achieve the outcomes they promise.
Both would be desirable outcomes. Why not endorse that rather than lament how transparency makes life harder for the establishment?