Saturday 23 June 2012

Cash and transparency

This week, a study of the extent to which different think tanks disclose their donors was published. It is available at:

Those that got high ratings were no doubt pleased. At least one that got a low rating did not accept the presumption that transparency was a virtue, and argued that donors had a perfect right to privacy, as can be seen here:

Meanwhile, in the United States, there has been considerable concern about the use of supposedly independent Political Action Committees, or PACs, to circumvent limits on politicians' campaign spending. And some of the big corporate donors to political campaigns don't even want to have their names disclosed:

So what would be a sensible position, given the tension between:

(a) the prima facie right of each person to decide whether or not to disclose his or her spending (on anything, not just on politics) and whether or not to disclose his or her political views; and

(b) the need to do what we can to prevent the corruption of the political process by those of the rich and powerful - I hope a fairly small proportion - who try to corrupt it?

The kind of corruption I have in mind is the twisting of legislation and government administration to suit the private interests of those who spend money to get certain politicians elected, or to lobby the politicians who get into power. It amounts to corruption because legislation and government administration are imposed on all of us, without the freedom to opt in or out: they should therefore be in the interests of all of us, not in the interests of a few. The spending of lots of money in the marketplace, promoting the production of the goods and services that the rich happen to like, does not amount to corruption, because we are free to participate, or not to participate, in any given market, and because the production of some goods and services, at high prices, does not prevent the production of others, at lower prices.

I think that the answer depends on the current state of the polity.

If we have a healthy, free, democratic polity, or one that has only wandered a little way from that ideal, then disclosure will help to keep it healthy. I would therefore favour full disclosure in the UK, whether or not the donees are political parties. Some think tanks say that they are not party political. Such claims are often true. But they still seek to change legislation, and if they may be promoting the interests of their funders, whether because the funders ask them to or because they decide their policies first and then naturally attract the funders who agree with them, that should be disclosed. When changes to legislation or to government administration are being advocated, we need to be aware of possible selfish motives, so that we can appraise the arguments being put forward with an appropriate degree of scepticism.

An important counterpart to this is total transparency on the side of government. All papers related to the conduct of government should be freely available, except when national security would be put at risk. That should help to prevent corruption in the reverse direction, for example when a local council might refuse planning permission for new business premises because the proprietor was known to support political views that were at variance with those of councillors.

Given those conditions, I do not see the right to privacy as carrying much weight. It is not even clear to me that we do have a right to privacy against anyone except an intrusive government. (I find Article 8 of the European Convention acceptable only as a right against the state: if it is a right against the press, we can say farewell to a free press. But that is another argument.)

If, on the other hand, there is a repressive government, secrecy may be essential in order to have a chance against the authorities. But in that position, opposition movements would probably be breaking the state's (unjust) laws anyway, and the state would inspect bank accounts, whether or not it was authorised to do so. Laws on privacy of funding would then be neither here nor there.

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