catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Privacy vs disclosure

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If you talk to people from the centre-left or beyond about think-tanks, sooner or later they’ll raise the issue of funding. Often it is to complain about how much money right-wing think-tanks have (hah!). For these people, the adjectives ‘well-funded’ and ‘right-wing’ are magnetically attracted to the noun ‘think-tank’. This is frequently followed by mutterings about the secret sources of this money. And so it was in this morning’s profile of think-tanks in The Age. According to journalists Ewin Hannan and Shaun Carney:

If think tanks are essentially ideas factories, who gives them money becomes important because, obviously, ideas can and do influence government policy. Who funds them allows the public to follow the trail of influence.

Calls for disclosure highlight the potential conflicts between two modern trends – demanding transparency from institutions but protecting privacy for individuals. The main danger here, in my view, is not donors influencing government through think-tanks, but governments influencing donors. With a pervasive state, anyone with serious business interests tries to maintain reasonable relations with government. Rightly or wrongly, many people in business are reluctant to take political positions in public because they fear retribution, or at least less favourable treatment. Being able to donate to think-tanks or other political organisations is the equivalent of the secret ballot. People should be able to get involved in politics without publicly stating their views.

But doesn’t this secrecy create the possibility of improper influence? The rules on disclosure of donations to political parties exist because of the possibility that donations will secretly influence government policy – they are there to stop politicians being corrupt. But think-tank efforts to influence government policy (and those of other advocacy organisations) are hardly secret – quite the reverse, think-tanks try to attract as much publicity as they can. Even if third parties are hoping to influence government, their chosen means of public argument already brings the chosen causal mechanism into public display and the accountability of public debate. And while politicians can be foolishly persuaded by bad ideas we cannot sensibly ban them from listening to what people have to say.

Ironically, compelling disclosure of donors to advocacy organisations may actually increase the risk of a donor’s financial interests influencing research. At least at the CIS, the think-staff know little about where the money comes from. I didn’t know we had 70 corporate subscriptions until I read it in The Age this morning. From a few publicly disclosed donors and the people who come to functions I could probably guess 15-20 of them. For the rest, I can’t even be subconsciously influenced to promote their interests as I don’t know who they are. That would not be the case if they were all disclosed (similarly, disclosure of CEO salaries is believed not to have increased accountability but to have fuelled salary growth, as CEOs insist on getting ‘market’ rates). In practice, no donors try to directly influence the work we do – and unlike Hamilton’s two think-thanks and the Lowy Institute we have a diversified funding base, and so would not take their money if they tried to exercise control.

Lefties love conspiracy theories (and it is much easier to allege conspiracies than develop substantive arguments), so I don’t expect demands for disclosure of the corporate conspirators behind ‘neoliberalism’ to go away. But the intellectual case for disclosure isn’t strong, and think-tanks should leave it to their donors to decide whether or not their names are mentioned in public.


Written by Admin

December 10, 2005 at 8:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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