"There is a feeling today among too many Americans that we might not make it," Lawrence Lessig writes in the introduction to his new book Republic, Lost. "Not that the end is near or that doom is around the corner, but that a distinctly American feeling of inevitability, of greatness – culturally, economically, politically -- is gone." He goes on to note that Americans' trust in government is at an all-time low, related to the (largely accurate) belief that moneyed special interests wield outsize influence over our political system. In his book, Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and big noise in the field of law and technology, details how money came to corrupt our government, how our broken system hurts both the Left and the Right, and what it will take to return American democracy to its rightful owners – the people. We caught up with him by phone the other day; here, highlights from our conversation.
You say our political system is corrupt, but not in the way we might think.
When people typically think about corruption in government, they think about Rod Blagojevich or Randy Duke Cunningham, people who violate criminal laws and are generally grotesque sorts. I don’t think that’s the problem with our government. I think the problem with our government is that we have a Congress that’s dependent upon funders. And that dependency leads congress to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be doing—spending time worried about bank swipe fees rather than unemployment or budget deficits. It also leads Americans to believe that congress is just bought, as the vast majority of Americans believe, which makes them cynical and less engaged, and therefore leaves the fox guarding the hen house. That’s not a corruption violating any federal law, that’s a corruption that I call “dependency corruption.”
You have a section explaining how this corruption defeats the left and the right. I think it's pretty obvious how it hurts the left. How about the other guys?
I think the most dramatic example is the story I tell about taxes in the conservative chapter. The WSJ runs this piece where they’re puzzled by all these temporary tax revisions. They can’t understand why there are so many of these temporary tax revisions. It’s obvious when you think about it from the fundraising perspective. The temporary tax revisions are a chain to pull every time the temporary provision is about to expire, and the people who benefit are more than eager to pay whatever it takes to get the continuation of the tax benefit, and so they do. And this is an architecture designed to help congress fund its campaigns. So if you want smaller government and simpler taxes, my argument is you won’t get either of those things so long as there’s a conflict of interest with members of congress who want bigger government and more complicated taxes to help fund their campaigns.
You also talk about how this corruption distorts the food market.
That's right. I talk about the way we have sugar tariffs that protect domestic sugar manufacturers and corn subsidies that protect those who depend upon corn. When you put these two things together, you understand a little bit why we have an explosion of high-fructose corn syrup substituting for regular sugar in our diets. I’m not making the argument that this shows the money bought this result. I’m putting the money next to these crazy results and asking you whether you can with confidence believe there’s sense behind these results in light of the money. In these cases, it’s hard to believe that this is anything other than politicians pandering to those who are going to deliver a large amount of money to their campaigns.
The same goes for efforts to regulate Wall Street.
This is actually the most grotesque example. We had the catastrophe. And in our history every time we’ve had a major collapse like this, we’ve had a government with a strong enough backbone to step in and say “Okay, how can we fix the problem?” And many people thought that’s what was going to happen after the 2008 collapse. What instead we saw was that congress was overwhelmed by an army of lobbyists – twenty-five times the lobbyists defending bank interests as promoting reform! The product of that swarm of bank lobbyists was a reform package that has not addressed any of the fundamental issues that led to the bubble and the burst and the collapse of our economy. And that’s testimony to Wall Street’s extraordinary power over the left and the right. The president’s pandering to raise money on Wall St., the democrats pandering to raise money on Wall St., and the republicans of course smiling as Wall St. threatens to turn against the democratic party and favor the republicans because of the regulation of Wall St.
Barack Obama came into office talking about changing how Washington works, which hasn’t happened, obviously. You write in the book about your disappointment.
Obama had a bunch of powerful rhetoric that excited a lot of people, especially young people, who came out and vote for the first time in their lives because they thought there’d be a real change. But when he got to Washington with that administration, it's pretty clear he had no plan for how he was actually going to change how Washington worked. He didn’t take up the fight, and that was a betrayal. And what does he have now? He ran a campaign of reform and not being captured by the money interests, but he’s not going to be able to run another campaign like that. Small-dollar contributors are not going to be the thing that makes Obama successful; he’s going to run a billion-dollar campaign funded by large contributions from very strong interests who have a very keen desire to stop core reform that he wants to make.
Do you think he even has the will to pursue a reform agenda?
I don’t see any evidence that he has the will. And I don’t think he has the standing. We are Charlie Brown. Lucy has pulled the ball again. I think we’re going to need a decent interval before we believe another president who says their job is to reform the system.
What sort of reforms do you think it will take?
I think the only effective reform is to get a system where the money that funds congress, the “funders,” are basically the people, as opposed to the funders being separated from the people. So systems that try to push for small-dollar funded elections and make those effective. I lay out my own voucher program that tries to do that, but the challenge isn’t as much to imagine the solution as much as it is to imagine the process to bring about the solution, given how entrenched the cancer is and how much the very people we need to reform the system depend upon the existing system.
So you even propose a constitutional convention.
Yes, really as a way to emphasis that we need an outside the beltway strategy. I’m not sure that any of these strategies would work, but if there is one that will work, it will have to be on different territory than the one lobbyists and members of congress now control. I think that the real challenge is we’re not used to exercising power as citizens anymore. We’ve been passive listeners to television commercials for too long, and not really active producers of democracy. So we might be inspired by other countries around the world that are doing this right now, because I don’t yet see in our own will the ability to exercise that energy and demand the fundamental change that’s needed here.