Lawrence Lessig and Fighting Corruption

Lawrence Lessig has recently shifted his focus away from intellectual property and technology policy and toward tackling the larger issue of political corruption.

It’s quite obvious to me why he’s shifted his focus.  Lessig frequently speaks about corporate influence on the law in his work, and no doubt after years of reading policies constructed by politicians who represent competing special interests he’s had enough.

I’ve seen the same thing the more I study policy, which is why I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Lessig that is corruption is rampant in Washington.  I also agree with him that only a small portion of it is Blagojevich-style, blatantly quid pro quo corruption.  It’s more of a subtle corruption.  It’s the influence of industry, unions, GMOs—any group with cash and a constituency—that consumes nearly all politicians and most of the other political professionals in DC.

Lessig has offered at least the beginning of a solution to this in the form of his NC or Non-Corruption principle.  As he states in one phrase:

I don’t shill for anyone.

Or, as he puts it in longer form:

I never promote as policy a position that I have been paid to advise about, consult upon, or write about. If payment is made to an institution that might reasonably be said to benefit me indirectly, then I will either follow the same rule, or disclose the payment.

I think it’s great that Dr. Lessig adheres to these principles, they’re certainly admirable.   However, these principles do nothing to solve the problems with corruption in Washington.

My reasoning?  I’ll continue to quote Lessig from the “Disclosure” section of his website:

The NC principle is about money. It is not about any other influence. Thus, if you’re nice to me, no doubt, I’ll be nice to you. If you’re respectful, I’ll be respectful back. If you flatter me, I doubt I could resist flattering you in return. If you push causes I believe in, I will likely push your work as well.  These forms of influence are not within the scope of the NC principle — not because they are not sometimes troubling, but because none of them involve money.

I don’t understand this dichotomy.  Lessig doesn’t fully defend why we ought to be more concerned with money than these softer forms of influence.  His best defense of why money should be isolated:

Think about how hard these other “corruption principles” would be to implement.

This is true, other forms of influence—niceness, mutual respect, flattery, shared causes—can never be eliminated by any law.  Yet those forms of influence have incredible power.

Say we had full public financing of elections.  Senators Dodd and Schumer would still be talked about favorably by the banking industry, Representative Dingell would still be a friend of Detroit and the UAW.  Why?  Because even if they were barred from giving money to candidates altogether, those groups can influence elections.

Special interests can buy ads, as money have done through PACs.  Even if election policies made PACs illegal, corporate mouth pieces could speak well of certain candidates.  Union bosses and the heads of GMOs could tell their members to vote for one candidate or another.

The policies necessary to stop special interests from even speaking about or with a candidate can be nothing short of fully eviscerating the First Amendent.  And at that point, the cure would be worse than the disease.

Getting rid of the corrupting influence of money would do nothing to stop corruption in Washington precisely because influence isn’t limited to campaign donations.

But, if we can’t eliminate special interest influence over the use of government power, what should we do?

Easy: limit that government power as much as possible.

I don’t see any other solution to the problem of corruption.  Thankfully, I also see limiting government power as a means to creating a freer society, a strong economy, and a healthier planet.

However, I look forward to reading Lessig’s work on corruption, not necessarily because I’ll agree with his policy prescriptions (though he may return to libertarianism), but because I’m sure it will be some of the most well-researched and well-reasoned argumentation on the subject.