Thursday, March 30, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Weak Reductionism from Common Cause

Common Cause has taken out after PFF, among others, for accepting support from, of all things ... corporations! The longer I've been at PFF, the less plussed I am by these periodic attacks on our credibility. But this one is particularly weak in its tendentiousness and selectivity.

The breathless expose purports to shed new light on the "astroturf" campaigns engaged in by communications corporations. For PFF, this heroic Common Cause sleuthing must have taken at least 15 seconds navigating our web site to our supporters page. But the bombshell revelation that we accept corporate donations kind of falls flat because we tend to have supporters on both sides of many issues: net neutrality (Cable/Telephone companies AND Microsoft and Google); franchise reform (Cable AND Telephone Companies); Spectrum Reform (Wireless Cos. for property rights AND Intel and Microsoft for commons); content and liability (Verizon AND the RIAA). This inconvenient fact would ruin a good, straightforward "they are slavish toadies" storyline, so Common Cause chooses to elide that and only point to supporters whose positions they don't like. In other words, the funding issue is only being used by them as a proxy to forward their substantive position in the underlying debate. It is a species of intellectual laziness, at best, or dishonesty, at worst.

The intellectual laziness belies the inability of Common Cause to hurl anything but epithets about funding, or engage the substance at any level deeper than hysteria about "the future of the Internet." Either PFF's arguments on net neutrality are true and have merit, or they do not. Either even a platform monopolist has incentives to maximize traffic on its network, or not, and if not why not. If the arguments have merit, or not, is beside the point of who supports PFF, or by the same token of who supports groups on the other side like Common Cause (who, unlike PFF, does not disclose its supporters), EFF, Public Knowledge or others on the Internet-left. [Plus, my position on net neutrality is firmly "maybe," not "yes" or "no."]

Dwelling on the funding issue is then a reductive sideshow that avoids the core substantive issues of policy. That's not good for public policy if the best we can do is trade charges of who is a bigger whore, and never discuss the real issues.

And besides, given the array of PFF supporters finding themselves on opposite sides of any given isssue we comment on, perhaps an hypothesis more consistent with the evidence is that PFF is consistent with principles and corporate supporters are opportunistic with them. Political economy 101 teaches that people will like and defend their property rights, while abjuring and seeking to weaken their rivals.

If the Common Cause hypothesis is true that we are just automatons directed by our funders then the cognitive dissonance we face internally is truly enormous. While Hollywood has taught us that "it's hard out here for a pimp", imagine how much harder it must be for us working for all these different pimps -- "Gee are we in Microsoft's pocket on this issue or Verizon's? Since they are on opposite sides, maybe we should flip a coin, or -- if our market power warrants it -- hold an auction for our policy affection."

As a final aside, CC even dings us for our disclaimer that each given work is the opinion of its author, and not that of the Foundation or its board -- and then ominously wonders whether we include that disclaimer to reserve the right to change positions for bigger and better bounties. Well, we do reserve the right to change positions if facts warrant, but this is a fairly standard disclaimer used by think tanks, including Cato, Heritage and other of our bigger bretheren. The idea is to underscore that this is the individual scholar's work, and furthermore -- as happens with some frequency -- even internally we can disagree. [I may sell tickets some day to a Thierer-DeLong email bout.]

One of economist Thomas Sowell's many excellent books is "Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy." Sowell's title says it all, and what I find most troubling is the enormous self-regard it takes to appoint ones own motives and positions as pure and beyond reproach, and dismiss those who disagree with you as dishonest, venal and for sale. I am perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that I am a benighted soul brainwashed by subliminal broadcasts of James Earl Jones' readings of Hayek and Coase, all brought to me by Verizon and CNN. But for now, I think I am trying to do an honest job of scholarship, and to bring the voices of the nation's best scholars to bear on public policy issues.

Common Cause should just stick to its tried and true business model of advocating the suppression of political speech. Their reductionism works well for them there, but misses the point just as much.

posted by Ray Gifford @ 10:01 AM | Think Tanks