Is the opacity of governance natural? cf @FrankPasquale

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve begun reading Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society on the recommendation that it’s a good place to start if I’m looking to focus a defense of the role of algorithms in governance.

I’ve barely started and already found lots of juicy material. For example:

Gaps in knowledge, putative and real, have powerful implications, as do the uses that are made of them. Alan Greenspan, once the most powerful central banker in the world, claimed that today’s markets are driven by an “unredeemably opaque” version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and that no one (including regulators) can ever get “more than a glimpse at the internal workings of the simplest of modern financial systems.” If this is true, libertarian policy would seem to be the only reasonable response. Friedrich von Hayek, a preeminent theorist of laissez-faire, called the “knowledge problem” an insuperable barrier to benevolent government intervention in the economy.

But what if the “knowledge problem” is not an intrinsic aspect of the market, but rather is deliberately encouraged by certain businesses? What if financiers keep their doings opaque on purpose, precisely to avoid and confound regulation? That would imply something very different about the merits of deregulation.

The challenge of the “knowledge problem” is just one example of a general truth: What we do and don’t know about the social (as opposed to the natural) world is not inherent in its nature, but is itself a function of social constructs. Much of what we can find out about companies, governments, or even one another, is governed by law. Laws of privacy, trade secrecy, the so-called Freedom of Information Act–all set limits to inquiry. They rule certain investigations out of the question before they can even begin. We need to ask: To whose benefit?

There are a lot of ideas here. Trying to break them down:

  1. Markets are opaque.
  2. If markets are naturally opaque, that is a reason for libertarian policy.
  3. If markets are not naturally opaque, then they are opaque on purpose, then that’s a reason to regulate in favor of transparency.
  4. As a general social truth, the social world is not naturally opaque but rather opaque or transparent because of social constructs such as law.

We are meant to conclude that markets should be regulated for transparency.

The most interesting claim to me is what I’ve listed as the fourth one, as it conveys a worldview that is both disputable and which carries with it the professional biases we would expect of the author, a Professor of Law. While there are certainly many respects in which this claim is true, I don’t yet believe it has the force necessary to carry the whole logic of this argument. I will be particularly attentive to this point as I read on.

The danger I’m on the lookout for is one where the complexity of the integration of society, which following Beniger I believe to be a natural phenomenon, is treated as a politically motivated social construct and therefore something that should be changed. It is really only the part after the “and therefore” which I’m contesting. It is possible for politically motivated social constructs to be natural phenomena. All institutions have winners and losers relative to their power. Who would a change in policy towards transparency in the market benefit? If opacity is natural, it would shift the opacity to some other part of society, empowering a different group of people. (Possibly lawyers).

If opacity is necessary, then perhaps we could read The Black Box Society as an expression of the general problem of alienation. It is way premature for me to attribute this motivation to Pasquale, but it is a guiding hypothesis that I will bring with me as I read the book.