Brian Lamb, American Hero, and the Limits of His Achievements

Brian Lamb, the founder of C-Span, has recently announced his retirement. By turning cameras on government, he is a hero of the age of new media, almost a founder for our time. But his very accomplishment shows the limits of what can be achieved by making big government more transparent.

Nevertheless, his achievements are substantial and wholly admirable. Through his efforts, gavel to gavel coverage of the House and Senate is available on television and the internet in real time. All important committee hearings are aired live or as soon as space can be found on one of its channels. Lamb also championed expansion of C-Span into Book TV that covers non-fiction, with a heavy emphasis on politics and American history. Comparative democracy comes in the form of question time at Westminster and other parliaments around the word.

Lamb also set a scrupulously non-partisan tone. Unlike with interviews in the mainstream media and the conservative media that has grown up as an alternative, it is genuinely impossible to infer the political views of any of the interviewers on C-Span. They are relentlessly polite but relentlessly focused on the essentials of the political positions and issues at stake. For four decades Lamb himself has been interviewing people, mostly writers, on his own shows, Booknotes and Q and A—and modeling fairness and courtesy throughout. It is an immense tribute to his energy and dedication that he was willing to conduct an in-depth interview each week while simultaneously running the C-Span network.

Thanks to Lamb, every American can have a ringside seat at our government and the opportunity to put all the drama in its political and historical context. Yet, sadly, it would be hard to say that governance has improved despite the increased transparency. Lamb himself says that the takeaway from his time in Washington is that it is a town where everyone is lying.

You might think that C-Span’s transparency would at least help cut down on lies, because lying politicians would lose credibility. But the brute fact is that despite its excellence, C-Span attracts very few viewers relative to the number of voters. The vast majority of people remain almost wholly ignorant of the policy proposals and quite ignorant even of the mechanisms of government. They are suckers for deception.

And no amount of C-Span programming will change this fact. Public choice teaches that it is rational to be ignorant of politics. A citizen is more likely to die by accident on the way to the polls than for a Presidential election to be so close that they make a difference in the outcome. And keeping up with enough policy to make an informed vote is even harder. Most people have more productive or enjoyable uses of time. For some of us, politics is a hobby and watching C-Span is more compelling than HBO, but I fear that will always be a minority taste.

Thus, Brian Lamb’s heroic failure should remind us that the solution to the dishonesty in government is to limit its reach as well as to increase its transparency. In a limited government, there are fewer things to follow. Moreover, with a limited government, other forms of social ordering like the market would dominate. There, at least one’s decision about where to work and what to buy does not depend of the views of millions of others. A buyer or a worker is thus much less likely to be deceived by sellers and bosses than by politicians. If everyone were like Brian Lamb, we might profitably have a bigger government, but Lamb is no ordinary citizen.