Lessig: Mysterious, Boring—and LOL Funny!

by on October 5, 2009 · 12 comments

Update: The article is now online. Citizen Tools has collected some responses to it at the end of this post.

Lawrence Lessig has a provocatively titled article in the October 21 issue of The New Republic: “Against Transparency: The Perils of Openness in Government.” (Couldn’t find a link.) As a reader, I found it alternately mysterious, boring, and LOL funny.

I’m a person who notices premises, and Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement”—unvarnished access to government data—“is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

Given the pains Lessig had taken to define the “naked transparency movement” and preemptively critique its effects, I was prepared for a straightforward criticism of public access to raw data.

Perhaps Lessig, who launched Change-Congress.org to much fanfare a year and a half ago, would pitch for expert-moderated access to data so that the national conversation wouldn’t undermine faith in government.

I was sensing that I had anticipated correctly when he started discussing “targeted transparency,” in which better minds guide the public’s access to information, leading us away from misunderstanding. (I have two recent posts on Cato@Liberty discussing privacy notices. Take a look to see what I think of managed access to market information.)

Then came the boredom. Lessig writes turgidly, at length, about the vagaries of drawing conclusions from campaign finance data. Between the time she was first lady and a senator from New York, Hillary Clinton changed her vote on bankruptcy legislation, Lessig tells us. I don’t know what point this makes.

Boredom gave way to mystery, though, when Lessig turned to Internet-inspired changes in the newspaper and recording industries. They are threatened by Internet-based business models and practices. Elaborate fixes are in the works to save them, or at least to ameliorate the damage. (Why these industries deserve protection is not the question.) Collective licensing of some kind might help record companies; maybe newspapers will survive if they can take non-profit status.

But what does this have to do with the “naked transparency movement”?

Ultimately, Lessig draws a broad analogy between saving these dying industries and saving confidence in government, a reach so startling that it caught my funny bone.

“A system of publicly funded elections would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted because of money.”

I literally laughed out loud. Such a turn from the thesis Lessig had set up, so little to do with the new era of transparency, and such a ham-handed pitch for a policy dinosaur: taxpayer-funded electioneering. The Internet thing has crushed the barriers politicians face when trying to reach the public.

Lessig would “establish[] a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results.” Do you catch that? Money would just be gone! No one could believe it!

I risk being cruel, which is not my intention. It seems so obvious to so many of us that money follows power. There is so much money in politics because there is so much power in politics. Transparency—manifested hundreds of different ways across government—would disperse power and reduce the influence of money, which Lessig’s article doesn’t deny.

Lessig’s desire to have people believe in government is genuine. In my mind as a reader, the intellectual arguments in this piece just fell away. It was funny, and sad: Earnestly sweet Lawrence Lessig, hoping for some clever coercion that will make everyone believe in government with him.

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