Against faith in government

by on October 27, 2009 · 8 comments

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 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.”

Take the “money out of politics” and interest groups will similarly compete on other margins. They already do. Lobbying is a $3.2 billion industry without counting campaign contributions. Interests seek influence in many ways besides giving money:

  • hiring lobbyists on call to simply show up at critical times
  • spending great sums of money on research to support their cause
  • non-monetary perks for members of Congress and their staffs
  • organizing to knock on doors and get out the vote

As long as citizens continue to be rational and ignore the minutiae of every bill and spending decision that Congress makes, Congress will be successfully influenced by organized interests, direct money contributions or no. That’s why it’s called public choice.

However you slice it, Lessig is correct that one likely outcome of increased transparency will be that citizens will grow to have less faith in government. And it’s not for lack of context or lack of better institutional design. The fact is that as long as Congress has as much power as it has–as long as it can vote to spend billions of dollars to bail out failing banks and auto companies, provide huge subsidies for ethanol, or maintain a giant military complex for foreign adventures–there will be those who will seek to influence Congress. Rules of thumb often emerge because they work, so there may be some usefulness after all for the popular heuristic that Lessig finds so distasteful: “Washington is all about money.”

There are many of us in the transparency movement who have little faith in government. We fight for transparency precisely because we believe that by removing the covers off of our political system will our fellow citizens understand why we are justified in having such little faith. Maybe if faith in government is driven “over the cliff” will citizens demand the only reform that can withstand influence: less government. Less government means less power to grant goodies, which in turn means special interests will have less to fight for and therefore, hopefully, there will be less corruptibility. Less government also means more power to individuals who have no “lack of attention-span” for their own personal interests.

* Luckily for me, Lessig noted in his article that “Without a doubt, the vast majority of these transparency projects make sense. In particular, management transparency, which is designed to make the performance of government agencies more measurable, will radically improve how government works.” That is the topic of a newly released paper [PDF] that I co-authored with Drew Perraut, at which I hope you’ll take a look.

Cross-posted from Surprisingly Free. Leave a comment on the original article.

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