Lessig Isn't Kidding Around

by Reihan

I recently wrote a post praising Lawrence Lessig, and it looks as though he is taking the idea of running for Congress very seriously. He took a courtly, gentlemanly, and utterly devastating shot against Jackie Speier, the leading candidate, that strongly suggests to me he's in the race. Or, as a friend tells me, this could all be an elaborate scheme to raise money for Creative Commons, a worthy cause if there ever was one.

But anyway, while watching Lessig's video, a couple of things leapt out at me and gave me pause. The first is Lessig's apparent conviction that public financing of political campaigns will help ameliorate the worst aspects of what he calls "the economy of influence." So what exactly does Lessig mean by public financing? I'm not sure. I imagine his detailed policy proposals will actually be pretty sophisticated and smart. Right now, his Change Congress platform is summarized in three planks. Candidates would pledge to

(1) refuse money from lobbyists and PACs;

(2) ban "earmarks";

(3) and "support public financing of campaigns."

The wording suggests that Lessig favors tough limits on private contributions or at the very least a very large-scale expansion of public funds. This, in Lessig's view, will drive change. Might it instead protect incumbents, or entrenched ideas? Mark Schmitt, who has been closely involved in efforts to regulate campaign finance for well over a decade, wrote a terrific, insightful reassessment of the campaign finance reform movement for Democracy last year. He ended the essay on a chastened yet optimistic note.

Don’t build complex systems that put government in the position of trying to equalize all resources or ban all contributions. Instead, let voters shape the process through their own preferences, through organizing to enhance their power, and by using public funds to echo and enhance the preferences of ordinary citizens. Avenues by which large contributions influence politics will remain, whether they take the form of PACs, 527 committees, other nonprofits, or blogs. The best we can do is to offset their influence by broadening the range of voices that can be heard, as opposed to enhancing their influence by closing off other channels of money.

And fortunately,

Today we have the makings of a virtuous circle– voters are more engaged, small donors have returned, and the most corrupt members of Congress have been held accountable. Reformers should ask: What are the modest, non-restrictive interventions that would help push this virtuous cycle in the right direction? If they begin to approach the question in that way, the next decade of reform might be more productive than the last.

One wonders if Lessig has spoken to Schmitt and others who've been in the trenches. If he hasn't yet, I hope he does.

The two proposals that appeal to me closely related: the first is from James Carville and Paul Begala, and the second is from David Cay Johnston. Both are zany and possibly daft, particularly the Carville and Begala proposal, but both come from people who know political corruption inside and out and both ask the right questions about the sources of corruption.

Then, finally, there is the second thing that gave me pause: Lessig's firm belief that the reason we aren't taking urgent action on climate change is the millions of dollars spent on "junk science." But what if the proposed solutions, like cap-and-trade and a carbon tax, are in fact very bad ideas? That's a case Jim Manzi has made very persuasively at The American Scene. And by persuasively I mean, "I used to support a stiff carbon tax and now I don't thanks to his arguments, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't on the receiving end of any subtly corrupting influence." This serene confidence in the rightness of received wisdom is never a good thing. Of course, I'm pretty sure Lessig is better on this score than almost any other member of Congress, so I can forgive him.

It does make me think, though: if Lessig does run, and I hope he does, how great would it be to also have Richard Epstein in Congress? And Richard Posner on the Supreme Court? And Santa Claus in the White House? Santa would straighten FEMA out, that's for sure. There would, however, be a firestorm of controversy regarding his overreliance on non-union elf labor.

P.S.- Below you'll find the most compelling argument against Professor Lessig's case for a free culture. The following video, which I urge you to watch until the stunning conclusion, can be used and abused by any and all humans under a Creative Commons license.