In the last issue of The New Republic, Lawrence Lessig published the unfortunately titled article “Against Transparency.” In it he criticizes what he calls the “naked transparency movement.”* The article has drawn several responses, with Ellen Miller and Michael Klein’s being the best and most direct. I’d like to offer a libertarian perspective.
Lessig’s thesis is that the revolution in government transparency that modern information technology makes possible is a double-edged sword because what it uncovers is simply the general corruptibility of government–and he speaks of Congress in particular. Tools like MAPLight.org show that there is a strong correlation between campaign contributions and legislative votes. Some of these may indeed be corrupt bargains, and some may not. But the fact is that “the contributions are corrupting the reputation of Congress, because they raise the question of whether the member acted to track good sense or campaign dollars.”
Because citizens are prone to rational ignorance (although Lessig insists on relabeling the concept “lack of attention-span”), they will not investigate individual votes or other actions very deeply, and they will unfairly ascribe a certain susceptibility to influence to all in Congress. As a result, the naked transparency movement won’t inspire reform, but instead “will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.” Lessig writes:
At this time the judgment that Washington is all about money is so wide and so deep that among all the possible reasons to explain something puzzling, money is the first, and most likely the last, explanation that will be given. It sets the default against which anything different must fight. And this default, this unexamined assumption of causality, will only be reinforced by the naked transparency movement and its correlations. What we believe will be confirmed, again and again.
His solution? “A system of publicly funded elections would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money.” Take the money out of politics, Lessig argues, and you also take away the cynicism that forestalls change.
Lessig’s solution reminds me of airline regulation in the 60s and 70s. Prices where set by government, so airlines were forced to compete on other margins. First came the elaborate meals, then the in-flight bar lounges and later piano bars, and then “the musicians, magicians, wine-tasters, and Playboy bunnies.”