TNR Debate: Too Much Transparency? (Part I)

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Americans have an almost mystical faith that external controls on political power can produce good government. It is a faith in things like independent counsels, term limits, separation of powers, and Lawrence Lessig’s interest, transparency systems. It approaches faith because, even when these cures continue to fail, we merely ask how they can be improved, not whether the whole approach is wrong. That is why, in his essay, Lessig does not go far enough. Naked transparency isn’t the problem: It is our addiction to miracle cures that, since 1788, have done little for the patient.

The faith I am talking about comes from a mindset that views politics as, essentially, a form of chemistry or engineering. Stir together judicial review, transparency, divided government, and out of it, supposedly, comes good government. When that fails to work, we add something new, maybe technological, hoping that the next ingredient will make all the difference. The real problem is that the drive for miracle cures can neglect and even counteract the political controls that actually do matter: internal controls, better known as civic virtue.

While external controls may seem harmless, their costs come from disconnecting action from the internal moral compass. As Lao Tzu suggested, “The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.” The tendency for external rules to crowd out internal ethics was well demonstrated in a famous study of a nursery school by economists Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini. As they wrote, “Parents used to arrive late to collect their children, forcing a teacher to stay after closing time. We introduced a monetary fine for late-coming parents. As a result the number of late-coming parents increased significantly.”

In politics the same effects are obvious: External rules can relieve the politician of any sense of inner duty to act in the public interest. So long as the rituals are followed and no rules are actually broken, misbehavior gains a license. As a result, Congress includes members who are corrupt by any measure, like Representatives John Murtha or Don Young, but who don’t obviously violate the rules. Or, much harder to detect, members whose loyalty to this or that industry ensures their votes are never in question.

Transparency systems create exactly the same problems. Consider C-SPAN, the technological marvel of an earlier age. Though the network is good entertainment, and has taught politicians new forms of grandstanding, it has done little to improve government. There is nothing wrong with televising Congress, but it is to the American polity what Diet Coke is to the fat man.

What I mean is that many transparency systems simply create an incentive to create a good impression under the dictates of the system. Just as food manufacturers manage to produce fat-free and low-calorie food that isn’t necessarily healthy, politicians will produce information that suggests even-handedness even if there is none. Meanwhile, the chance of a transparency cure producing real change is close to zero. Does anyone really think that posting a schedule online will make a politician into a better leader?

While it may be blasphemy to suggest this, what I am talking about is true even of oldest of political cures: separation of powers. You don’t need a degree in behavioral psychology to understand that the founders created a potential moral hazard. Members of Congress can misbehave, secure in the fact that they share responsibility with the president, the courts, and hundreds of other members. It is the opposite of “the buck stops here”–in most of American politics, the buck is in perpetual motion.

It is very tempting, especially for a technophile like me, to think that the right transparency app can solve the nation’s problems. It speaks to the great American faith in easy fixes to hard problems, just as Diet Coke was supposed to make Americans skinny. Conversely, the path of reform that relies on internal change and civic virtue is not sexy at all, and goes the way of Ancient Rome rather than Silicon Valley.

Nonetheless, I had hoped, and continue to hope, that the call for change in 2008 from both Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008 promised a new type of solution. The public, I thought, was voting not for fancier political cures but for a different type of leader. In the end that’s probably the only reform that will make a difference. It’s a change not in what we know about the people in power, but rather who those people are.

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia University, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and chair of Free Press.

Part I: Why more transparency actually makes politicians less likely to act in the public interest, by Tim Wu

Part II: More scrutiny of government is the solution, not the problem, by Ellen Miller and Michael Klein

Part III: How the courts could strike a balance between the needs for transparency and privacy, by Jeffrey Rosen

Part IV: Greater transparency will build-not diminish-the public's trust, by David Weinberger

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