Disclosure and Deliberation

Writing under the pseudonym "Publius," Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison attempted to convince New Yorkers to adopt the newly proposed Constitution.  They were answered, anonymously, by Agrippa, Brutus, Candidus, Cato, Centinel, John DeWhitt, Federal Farmer, an Old Whig, and others, who expressed their concerns about the document.  Both groups of authors left their mark; the Constitution was ratified, but it was also amended to include the Bill of Rights.

Proponents of grassroots lobbying disclosure often argue that without knowing the identity of the speakers, it will be impossible to reach fully informed opinions on their arguments.  So what happened with the Constitution?  Were we simply lucky, or is it possible that voters actually can evaluate an argument on its merits despite the anonymity of its proponents? 

The question, obviously, is rhetorical.  History shows that voters can accurately weigh arguments, even when they are advanced by anonymous speakers.  So why are proponents of disclosure so insistent on the necessity of disclosure?  Indeed, as this blog post shows, they can be downright nasty to those who disagree with them.

The inherent ability of the American people to consider arguments rationally cannot have degraded.  Indeed, we are a better educated and better informed people than we have ever been.  So if Americans no longer have the wherewithal to deal with anonymous issue advocacy, it can only be due to changes in either the issues or the advocates themselves.  "Reformers" point to both.  Some, like the author of the blog post linked above, note the "increasingly complex issues that we must deal with" as a justification for grassroots lobbying disclosure (as if the Constitution were "easy").  Others argue that advances in technology have allowed for advocacy that is both more precisely targeted and more widespread, which they believe "fools" voters into supporting causes they would oppose were it not for the machinations of wealthy anonymous advocates.  As a result, they argue, true deliberation will only be possible if anonymous speakers are forced to reveal their identities.

We reject this dim view of the American people, who we believe are capable of dealing with very complex issues and have the fortitude and wisdom to reject bad arguments regardless of how they are advanced.  Moreover, we reject the specious notion that grassroots lobbying disclosure will do anything to advance deliberation.  What disclosure proponents are really saying the American people need is not more deliberation, but less.  They believe that in our "complex" world voters need a heuristic, a shortcut, that will allow them to accept or reject arguments quickly, based on the identity of the speaker rather than the content of the argument.  Avoiding this reflexive rejection, of course, is precisely why people wish to speak anonymously in the first place.  Undoubtedly they hope, as all advocates do, that their ideas will be accepted without resistance.  At a minimum, however, they want their arguments considered fairly and not rejected out of hand.  Grassroots lobbying disclosure, by facilitating this reflexive rejection, inhibits deliberation rather than advancing it.

Regular readers of this blog know that we believe the debate over grassroots lobbying disclosure can be resolved simply by pointing to the First Amendment, which protects the right to speak anonymously.  But even if it were a question of pure policy, those who advocate shortcuts around weighing arguments on their merits cause us to wonder: if, in the name of convenience, we remove "deliberation" from our "deliberative democracy," what then is left of the "democracy?"

For those interested, CCP Chairman Brad Smith blogged on a similar point back in November.  More information on the constitutional right to anonymous speech can be found here and here.

Update (2/23):  OMB Watch has offered some comments on this post that are worth responding to.  Our response can be found here.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.