October 13, 2009

The Case Against Transparency?

Is the modern transparency movement doing more harm than good? That's what lawyer and political activist Lawrence Lessig argues in his new piece, Against Transparency.

How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement--if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness--will inspire not reform, but disgust. The "naked transparency movement," as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.

The essay is long but very readable. In it, Lessig attempts to divide transparency into two categories: "naked transparency" and "targeted transparency."

To Lessig, naked transparency is simply a "data dump" that tells you everything but isn't useful. To use a car analogy, naked transparency is reporting how much the car weighs, where it was built, the miles-per-gallon, the average salary of the worker building it, and the manufacturers suggested retail price. This type of transparency gives you a lot of information but it doesn't inform you of anything. If you simply wanted to know what matters (e.g. is the car a good buy?), you're no better off than you were before.

Targeted transparency, on the other hand, does not seek to simply "get the data out there." Rather, targeted transparency "simplifies the data and presents it in a way that conveys meaningful information." To continue with the car analogy, targeted transparency tells you if the car is a good buy and overall ranks it with other cars. The "downside" of targeted transparency is you don't get as much information (weight, MSRP, where built, worker salary) but you do get a more valuable piece of information regarding the car -- whether it is a good buy.

After all, if the goal is to tease real meaning from the data and present that to the people, where do you get this data? You get it from FEC reports, lobbyist connections, and roll call votes. The naked transparency movement provides you it all.

Lessig then argues that removing special interest money from politics would solve a lot of the problems with modern government. He suggests having publicly funded campaigns with $100 per citizen limits per cycle. He ignores the fact that moneyed and powerful interests have always found a way to get around campaign finance laws -- which is why full disclosure is so important.

And more so, his plan violates the Constitutional rights of every citizen. The Supreme Court has routinely ruled that donating money to candidates is a First Amendment right. Additionally it's not the role of government to dole out tax dollars to elected officials. No one should have to support a politician -- liberal or conservative -- unless they choose to.

In short, there may be flaws in the naked transparency movement and government in general but Lessig's alternatives would be a step back for transparency.

Taxpayers have the right to know how the government is spending their money and who is spending money trying to influence elected officials. The American people have the right and the ability to handle this information and all its implications.