Lessig for Congress?

by on February 21, 2008 · 14 comments

Julian interviews Larry Lessig on his prospective congressional campaign. Awesome.

Julian sticks with a straight news story, but I find Lessig’s latest crusade almost painfully naive. Lessig’s work on copyright law and free culture was brilliant and nuanced. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he got people thinking about copyright issues in a new way. But having turned his attention to the problem of political corruption, he comes up with “solutions” that have not only been widely discussed for decades, but have actually been tried and found wanting. The Watergate-era campaign finance reforms, let’s remember, attempted to create a system of public financing for presidential campaigns. It failed at least in part due to the Supreme Court, which found that restricting people from spending their own money on political speech violated the First Amendment.

The problem of political corruption is fundamental to politics. When governments have the ability to take from some and give to others, people will expend resources to ensure they’re on the winning side. Lobbyists and PACs are symptoms of this underlying process, but banning them isn’t going to eliminate the incentive to influence the political process, it will just lead special interests to find new ways to do so.

In the writings I’ve seen on this subject thus far, Lessig doesn’t appear to seriously grapple with these difficulties. As he put it in his original post on this subject:

In one of the handful of opportunities I had to watch Gore deliver his global warming Keynote, I recognized a link in the problem that he was describing and the work that I have been doing during this past decade. After talking about the basic inability of our political system to reckon the truth about global warming, Gore observed that this was really just part of a much bigger problem. That the real problem here was (what I will call a “corruption” of) the political process. That our government can’t understand basic facts when strong interests have an interest in its misunderstanding.

I think that parenthetical comment is crucial. What Lessig is grappling with isn’t a corruption of the political process. Rather, it’s a reflection of systematic problems with political decision-making. Procedural changes, like banning PAC contributions, earmarks, or third-party campaign expenditures, may shift power away from the current crop of special interests towards new ones. But politics just is the clash of special interests. Sometimes, one of the special interests with a seat at the table will be a public-spirited, grassroots organization like the ACLU, Creative Commons, or the National Rifle Association. But the self-interested factions devote vast resources to ensuring they maintain their seat at the table. PACs and lobbyists are symptoms. The underlying problem are the inherent incentives of the political process.

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