What about that transparency?

Published in Expansión

In Spain we talk a lot about democracy and very little about freedom. The latter, however, is the weightier of the two concepts. Democracy is not an end in itself but the best means of approaching the ideal of freedom. Richard Maybury defines with masterful simplicity the two basic rules a political system should abide by: “do all you have agreed to do and do not encroach on other persons or their property”. In other words, freedom and order. Democracy will get closer to the ideal of freedom the harder it works to see that these two rules are kept. In doing so, it cannot limit itself to letting citizens vote once every four years, i.e., on one day once every 1,500 days. It needs more ingredients than that. Today I would like to address one of them, transparency.

For citizens to be able to choose their representatives properly, they need to base their choice on objective information. This is not as easy as one might think, because to obtain that information a citizen has to overcome two significant hurdles. The first is the massive use of propaganda by the ruling class aimed at manipulating public opinion. This propaganda is so constant and overwhelming that citizens are simply not equipped to withstand it. The pathology of power and the abusive use of untruth exceed the understanding of the average citizen alien to politics, who finds it psychologically impossible to credit that such behaviour can take place so frequently as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The second obstacle is lack of transparency. This opacity, of which Spain is a prime example, comes about because the ruling class is not interested in balancing the relationship between government and people. Information is power and the ruling class wants all the power for itself. A citizenry which has reliable and readily-available information, is less likely to succumb to demagogy and propaganda. Such a citizenry would employ more numbers and fewer adjectives. It would talk in terms of realities, not of fantastic utopias; of results, not dreams. Such information, in fact, would in itself be an “Education for the Citizenry”, not the crass totalitarian nonsense the socialist government imposed on schools as a mandatory subject.

In my view the time has come for Spain to have transparency. Companies are obliged to disclose their accounts, audited down to the last hundredth of a euro by an independent auditor within six months of the end of each financial year. Indeed, every few years quoted companies are even required to change their auditors so as to ensure the latter’s independence. Political parties, however, keep their accounts secret. A very limited oversight is exercised by the resource-starved Tribunal of Accounts, albeit four or five years after the event. So I ask myself the simple question: why is this? As I understand them, “Trade Unions, Inc.”, another cornerstone of the Spanish Establishment, is so steeped in privilege that it neither discloses accounts nor undergoes audits. How come? I imagine that with Spain’s multiple employers’ organisations it is the same story. It would seem that Spain, unlike India, has an inverted caste system. Here, the untouchables are not those at the bottom, but those at the top. They are the chosen few, akin to the Pharisees, who “bind heavy burdens grievous to be born and lay them on men’s shoulders. But they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” (Matt. 23, 4).  But aren’t we meant to be equal in the eyes of the law?  Why should we bear burdens from which the untouchables, the politicians, unions and employers’ organisations are exempted? Who decides that this caste should have these extraordinary privileges? Or is it they themselves? On what grounds are we denied the right to know what they spend our money on?

Didn’t Democracy mean the power of the people? How can we exercise such power if we are systematically denied the information needed to exercise it?

What I am looking for is quite simple: income and expense; assets and liabilities. I want to know what the parties, unions and employers’ organisations receive as income from the State budget and, with respect to unions and employers’ bodies, what they earn from their miraculous all-embracing programmes of training and employment. I am also curious to know what they spend and what they spend it on. I simply wonder (and it’s no more than that) whether the payment in cash and kind obtained by union leaders is on a par with open market salaries. I am also curious to know what Spanish workers will think when they find out. I want to know, also, what real estate is owned by political parties, unions and employers’ organisations, and what its market value is. I want to know how much they owe the banks, what interest rates they pay, what special conditions they enjoy, and why this is so. And I think I have the right to know this because that money is mine. It’s mine and, dear reader, yours too.

But I don’t stop there. The civil and penal liabilities attached to company managers and Directors are legion. Those of political and union leaders are practically nonexistent. (In this respect, it should be said, these leaders are on a par with outgoing ministers, regulators and central bankers that, be it here, in the U.S or anywhere, are entitled to drop us all in the mud, and walk away untarnished). The boards of listed companies are obliged to have independent members (or at least seemingly independent ones). However, for the executive committees of political parties and the ruling bodies of unions there is no such stipulation. The salaries of the executives of listed companies are required to be made public; those of political parties, unions and employers’ bodies do not.

Transparency would be an extraordinary means of improving our image and credibility in the world. It would also be an effective weapon against corruption.  At the same time it would bring home to the population at large the astonishing joy, frivolity and arbitrariness with which our politicians gaily spend our money.  For example, when they told us they were “obliged” to raise taxes, any member of the public or arm of the media could ask why, instead of raising taxes, they did not cut unnecessary expense, this subsidy here, that needless expense there. For the politicians, the certainty of being seen and observed with close attention might encourage them not to spend our money like there was no tomorrow.

I suggest the government set up a website on which any member of the public may easily track the money he or she has paid in taxes with the sweat of his or her brow. This would be in full detail and in straightforward language, and cover both central and regional government. Other countries in Europe have such websites. May I also suggest that, above a certain figure, any organisation that obtains the majority of its income from public funds be obliged to publish its consolidated audited accounts, employing the same degree of detail and the same timeframe as that imposed on listed companies. Specifically, this would apply to political parties, unions, employers’ organisations, dependent foundations, publicly owned companies and, unfortunately, a long list of related bodies. Lastly, may I suggest that political, union and employers’ leaders be made subject to the same rules in terms of civil and penal responsibilities as the managers and Directors of private companies.

One should never pay too much attention to what a government says. What it actually says is usually of minor importance. Hot air mostly. The thing to watch is what it does. This is important, especially when its actions imply choice. The manner in which the politician decides between two options is especially revealing. The party now in charge of central government also controls the majority of Spain’s autonomous regions, making this a unique opportunity to turn Spain into a transparent country. I can think of no valid reason why it should not do so. If it does not do this, it is because it does not want to, not because it is prevented from doing so. So, will it or won’t it?

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