Imagine you are standing at a cross roads being offered the ‘free choice’ of taking the road on the left or the road on the right. The only problem is that the information you have been given to inform your choice is completely wrong. You have been told that the road on the right will lead you to treasure and the road on the left will take you off a cliff, whilst in fact the converse is the case. There is a clear sense in which the choice you make on the basis of this information is not free at all. The person who gave you this false information has effectively made you do what you didn’t want to do. They might as well have pushed you off the cliff by force.
By analogy, we have a ‘free choice’ in choosing our government every five years. But to the extent that we are receiving wrong information relevant to our voting choices, our decision about where to put the cross is not free. Recent research by the TUC showed a correlation between inaccurate views about the benefit system and hostility to benefit claimants. More than half of those who are ‘least accurate’ about the system think that benefits are too generous, whilst fewer than one in three (31%) of those giving the ‘most accurate’ answers agree. So while concerns with the benefit system are high, there is evidence that such concerns are largely the result of factually incorrect information.
Shouldn’t people be left to work out for themselves what the relevant facts are? In the 17th century it was possible a learned person to stay up to date with cutting edge thought in all of science and mathematics. These days knowledge is so specialised, that it is difficult if not impossible for anyone, especially those pressed with the demands of work and family, to undergo a forensic examination of all the evidence – economic, scientific, sociological – relevant to their voting decisions. Hence, it is crucial in a democracy to have sources of truth we can trust. If the government, or the media, is able to inculcate in its citizens an inaccurate understanding of the facts, which results in citizens supporting laws they would not have supported had they been correctly informed, then those laws have no democratic legitimacy. They might as well have been enforced autocratically.
Think tanks are one respected source of information. If you see a ‘lobbyist for the banks’ voicing opinion on the news, how you take what you are being told will, rightly, be qualified by the knowledge that the person speaking is being paid by the banks. If you see someone from an ‘economic think tank’ or an ‘educational charity’ voicing opinion on the news, you will probably be less concerned about the possibility of bias. The trouble is that many of our most prominent ‘think tanks’ and ‘educational charities’, such as the ‘Institute of Economic Affairs’ and Nigel Lawsons’s ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation’, refuse to declare their donors. In the absence of such information, we have no way of knowing whether these organisations are effectively lobby groups for corporate interests.
These think tanks defend this decision on the basis of the donor’s right to privacy. However, this right to privacy must be balanced against the need in a democracy to protect our respected sources of truth from the bias of special interests. People have a right to know whether the person being interviewed on BBC news telling them that higher taxes on the wealthy will be bad for the economy, or that there are reasons to doubt the science behind climate change, is being paid by individuals or corporations who would benefit from lower taxes on the rich or less green regulation. It’s time we had a clear distinction between lobby groups, who may choose if they like to keep their donors private, and impartial think tanks, who prove their independence from special interests by publishing the source of all donations above a certain amount.
The institution of the university is perhaps the most important source of truth in our society. Universities have a responsibility to lead the way here, by refusing to allow so-called ‘think tanks’ which refuse to publish their donors to participate in university activities, such as conferences and research activity. An effective boycott offers real hope of change to a more informed, more democratic, society.