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The Case Against Transparency

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, October 9 2009

The cover story of the new issue of the New Republic is Larry Lessig's case against pushing a a government transparency agenda. "We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works," Lessig warns, "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."

Transparency means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but Lessig is picking up on some generalized arguments against the current focus on radical government transparency, ones you in particular hear whispered by those working in government. In particular, that a fixation on connecting the dots between money and influence is naive. Political actions rarely have one cause and one effect, and it's silly that the limited resources that well-meaning government employees have at their disposal should go towards an openness that achieves nothing. A corollary to that argument is that quid pro quos are eye catching, but hardly the full story. Locking up every Duke Cunningham in government might satisfy an impulse, but there are problems with the American political system that would still persist.

A counterargument, though, is that Lessig's "naked transparency" is a straw man. Naked transparency, the thinking goes, is really a push for Congress to talk its coat off, or some less clunky phrase. In other words, an extremist position has the effect of simply tugging the political center closer towards openness. An obsession on freeing data is really about executing on the presumption that government in the United States, at least on the federal level, is supposed to be transparent. We've codified in the Freedom of Information Act, whose robustness separates us from even other democracies, and we've also enshrined it in other laws and practices. The U.S. is meant to function in the full light of day, for the most part. And an insistence on making government completely transparent is, the argument goes, a way of returning the country to what our normal level of openness is supposed to be.

(An open government is, in the conception of many of the scholars and leaders who shaped the U.S., meant to be complemented by a vibrant investigative press. Lessig bemoans the withering of that press, and seems to blame the Internet. But it's not exactly clear in his reckoning why the future of transparency and journalism is an either-or proposition.)

It's a striking charge from Lessig, and one which will not doubt prompt a strong response from transparency advocates -- and not only because it comes on the front cover of the New Republic, which has a history and reputation of providing progressive cover to regressive ideas. It's particularly eye catching because when Lessig switched his focus from the creative content movement to rehabilitating government, he himself pointedly used "corruption" to describe the practices of government he wanted to change. It wasn't about misplaced or incentives, or changing the way that people get information, so that lobbyists aren't always the best educated, best prepared sources of information. Lessig was, you might remember, the one who painted John Conyers as a toady of the publishing industry -- based on data on government made accessible by some of transparency's most fervent advocates.

(In the interest of naked transparency, our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation, an organization Lessig mentions in his article.)