Donor Disclosure Won’t Help Think Tanks

This article appeared in Roll Call on September 27, 2007.

Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, argues in a Roll Call guest observer column that government should mandate disclosure for donors to think tanks (“It’s Time for Think Tank Funding Disclosure,” Sept. 20). Mr. Shapiro notes that his organization has contributed to the organization I work for, the Cato Institute.

I believe such disclosure would discourage donors from giving to think tanks, thereby curtailing their liberties and making the public more ignorant.

Take note of two things about what I just wrote. First, my belief runs counter to Mr. Shapiro’s argument for disclosure, so what think tank scholars say and write does not necessarily reflect what their donors believe. Mr Shapiro and I share a strong belief in liberty and constitutional government. Yet we disagree here on the facts. If we know who gave what to a think tank, we do not necessarily learn what its research will say, contrary to Mr. Shapiro’s argument.

Second, and more important, knowing that the CEA gave to the Cato Institute tells readers absolutely nothing about the accuracy of my belief about the effects of disclosing donors. Anyone can decide whether my claim about disclosure is likely to be true without knowing who contributed to Cato. Of course, such claims are what matter about think tanks. Even if disclosure neatly linked donor interests to think tank research, the public would still have to decide whether that research was good or bad. And they could do that without knowing who supported the think tank.

Disclosure does much, however, to distract us from real arguments about policy. In the earlier example, we ought to stay focused on my claim that disclosure limits liberty without reason. But once we know about the CEA contribution, our focus drifts to that organization and its motivations in funding Cato. Judging by campaign finance discourse, disclosure of CEA’s donation would be rapidly followed by ad hominem attacks on Mr. Shapiro, the Cato Institute and me. Then you’ll be left wondering about the wrong things, rather than whether my claim about disclosure and liberty is true.

Ad hominem attacks on donors would almost certainly discourage giving to think tanks. Think tank donors who care about their privacy or have little tolerance for public abuse may decide to forget the whole thing.

We have had mandated disclosure of campaign finance contributions for many years. Such publicity has resulted in ad hominem attacks against donors to electoral campaigns, and some have stayed clear of supporting a candidate for that reason. Yet most people tolerate such costs because disclosure is said to prevent corruption and to educate the voter. If disclosure is good enough for candidates and parties, some will say, why not for think tanks?

But the two cases are quite different. Campaigns elect public officials who then have the power to bestow quid-pro-quo favors on their contributors. Mandated disclosure appears to be the least intrusive means of preventing such corruption. But the heads of think tanks do not hold public office and have no favors to bestow. People at think tanks transform donations into ideas, arguments and proposals. Their positions are often wrong or flawed, but fortunately we have freedom of speech to show why.

Disclosure is not likely to educate the public. Most people devote limited attention to policymaking. Disclosure is likely to direct that scarce resource to irrational considerations and away from what matters: whether a think tank’s arguments are correct. Policy players may learn from think tank disclosure, but such information is likely to be used to discourage donations to think tanks, thereby defunding their arguments and analysis. The public will end up with less information.

Disclosure of think tank donors will not prevent corruption or educate the public. It will discourage political participation, reduce information about policy decisions, distort and degrade public debate, and restrict liberty without reason. It is a policy with high costs and few benefits, and its time should never come.

John Samples is director of the center for representative government and author of The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform.