Lessig: “Anti-corruption transparency” is inexorable; cynicism is not.

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Ethics, Transparency | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Lawrence Lessig’s recent “Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government” in the New Republic, has generated controversy and comment, in part because it has been misread as an argument that information on political and financial influence should be restricted rather than released.

This post summarizes the parts of his article that pertain to the current government transparency movement and his cautions, criticisms, and remedies. Later posts will summarize some reactions from Carl Malamud, Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, and others, and then offer my take.

Focus: “Anti-corruption transparency”, which …

Lessig is concerned with one one specific kind of transparency: projects intended to reveal improper influence or outright corruption, e.g. by correlating incentives provided to legislators, such as campaign contributions, with the their votes.
Transparency is good when information is provided in usable form to those who are able to use it wisely, e.g. the miles per gallon ratings which guide individuals as they buy automobiles.   Consumers can benefit from “mpg transparency” without much effort.

… misleads us because we don’t pay enough attention.

In contrast, benefitting from what one might term “anti-corruption transparency” requires a long attention span.
But people, often quite rationally, limit the attention they devote to interpreting information. Indeed, politics has become the art of exploiting short attention spans, “tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze”.

So, in too many cases, we jump to the conclusion that money has bought a vote…

Unfortunately, what others call “connecting the dots” is the path of least resistance.. For instance, a journalist or an opponent highlights that First Lady Clinton opposed the Bankruptcy Bill in 2000, that soon to be Senator Clinton received $140,000 in campaign contributions from credit card and financial services firms later that year, and that she voted for the bill in 2001.  Although there are many reasons why she might have switched her position, “[e]veryone … ‘knows’ just why she switched, don’t they?” We connect the dots.
Lessig argues, in contrast, that “[a]ll the data in the world will not tell us whether a particular contribution bent a result by securing a vote … that otherwise would not have occurred.”
Anti-corruption transparency is problematic because of “its structural insinuations–its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always”.

… and become cynical about government, and that’s bad.

It is already the “opinion of the vast majority of the American people, [that Congress] sells its results to the highest bidder”, and anti-corruption transparency, “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations”, will just make this worse. He wants to to reduce this cynicism.

But this transparency can’t be stopped.

But we will not find the answer to our problems in a Luddite counterattack: “The network is not going away…. [T]ransparency is here to stay–indeed, … it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear….”

Instead, let’s restructure campaign finance.

Instead, the solution is “[a] system of publicly funded elections [which] would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money…”. “Qualified candidates” would be provided with a publicly funded “grubstake”, then permitted to raise additional funds from citizens up to a low cap. $100 per person per cycle.
This will increase people’s trust in Congress “by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results”.

Update:

See also these noteworthy reactions from around the web: