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who’s against government transparency? February 8, 2008

Posted by KG in campaign finance, econ, politics.
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ian ayres @ freakonomics on the concept of a blind trust for campaign donations:

Transparency in government has a glorious tradition. Justice Louis Brandeis long ago said, “publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” But there exists in our government a central mechanism of democracy that stands against this cult of disclosure — the voting booth. Ballot secrecy was adopted toward the end of the nineteenth century to deter political corruption. Before the secret ballot, people could buy your vote and hold you to your bargain by watching you place that vote. Voting booth privacy disrupted the economics of vote buying, making it much more difficult for candidates to buy votes because, at the end of the day, they could never be sure who had voted for them.

A similar anti-transparency argument can be applied to campaign finance. We might replicate the benefits of the voting booth by creating a “donation booth,” or a screen that forces donors to funnel campaign contributions through blind trusts. Like the voting booth, the donation booth would keep candidates from learning the identity of their supporters. Just as the secret ballot makes it more difficult for candidates to buy votes, mandating anonymous donations through a system of blind trusts might make it harder for candidates to sell access or influence because they would never know which donors had paid the price. Knowledge about whether the other side actually performs his or her promise is an important prerequisite for trade. People — including political candidates — are less likely to deal if they are uncertain whether the other side performs. The secret ballot disrupts vote buying because candidates are uncertain how a citizen actually voted; anonymous donations disrupt influence-peddling because candidates are uncertain whether contributors actually contributed.

So instead of mandating transparency, we might do better to mandate a kind of non-transparency.

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