Rep. Lawrence Lessig (D-CA)

by Reihan

The following post closely resembles outright hackery. Rest assured, it is very sincere and heartfelt hackery.

The special election to replace the late Tom Lantos is only a few weeks away, and it looks as though former State Senator Jackie Speier has the race sewn up. But a group of free culture enthusiasts, led by Harvard's John Palfrey, are working to persuade Lawrence Lessig to run for the seat. Lessig, a law professor at Stanford, the leading light of the free culture movement, and now a scholar focused on corruption and the fate of democracy, has a highly unusual pedigree. As a kid, he was a teenage Reaganite and hardcore libertarian. Though he later drifted to the left, Lessig's leftism (leftishm?) reflects a Millian sensibility that informs his thinking about the uses and abuses of government and corporate power. More encouraging still, he clerked for Richard Posner and Antonin Scalia. His worldview derives from a serious and lasting engagement with conservative ideas. This accounts in part for his decidedly unconventional tack in Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which he made an originalist case against the scandalous Copyright Term Extension Act  of 1998. After losing the case, Lessig offered an insightful mea culpa that's well worth your time.

The image that will always stick in my head comes from an editorial that ran in The New York Times. While the reaction to the Sonny Bono Act itself was almost unanimously negative, the reaction to the court's decision was mixed. The press coverage that attacked the decision did so because it left standing a silly and harmful law. That "grand experiment" that we call "the public domain" is over, the paper said. When I can make light of it, I think, "Honey, I shrunk the Constitution." But I can rarely make light of it. We had in our Constitution a commitment to free culture. In the case that I fathered, the Supreme Court effectively renounced that commitment. A better lawyer would have made them see differently.

Call him a crazed egomanic, but there's something really remarkable about the way Lessig takes a manifest failure of our constitutional system personally. He's not in public life because he was charming and popular in high school, or to find some lobbying sinecure or because he is convinced the other side constitutes an American Taliban that must be shamed and then destroyed. Rather, Lessig is most concerned with preserving the immune system, the organic intellectual defenses, of a free and open society, something conservatives and liberals alike ought to care about very much.

Of course there are many avenues through which to effect political change, perhaps the most important of which is raising awareness of the issues at stake. Lessig has brilliantly pursued that course. In leaving behind questions surrounding copyright, though, he's recognized that there are deeper problems with the body politic, and deeper questions concerning the vitality and indeed the viability of representative democracy in a society like our own. The time may now have come for Lessig to bring his considerable rhetorical skills and intellectual prowess to the legislative branch.

I'm not a liberal and I'm not a Democrat. I'll bet I disagree with Lessig on Iraq and S-CHIP and possibly even net neutrality. Yet I think Lessig, who is very firmly a liberal and very firmly a Democrat, can, in some small but significant way, deliver some of that "change" we've been hearing so much about.

There's a lot that's wrong with the Cult of Obama, which Patrick Ruffini brilliantly dissected through the lens of corporate marketing in this post, but if the rising tide of interest and enthusiasm can lead one or two Lessigs into public life, perhaps it will end up being more than a mass delusion. I think of Lessig as an almost paradigmatic Obamacrat, a smart and accomplished professional interested in reforming and revitalizing government for the betterment of all Americans through the embrace of disruptive technologies and, um, cherished American principles. If this is the animating impulse behind the new liberalism, the new conservatism that will rise to challenge it will be sharper and more forward-looking still.

There's more to say about the nature and importance of free culture, about Lessig's virtues, and about why conservatives and liberals alike have reason to back him. But I guess I'll leave you with Glenn Reynolds's characteristically brief take.

LARRY LESSIG FOR CONGRESS?  We could do worse -- and probably will!

We're in a rare and weird moment in which we actually can do better. The voters of California's 12th Congressional District, and all Californians and all Americans, deserve better. Si se puede! Oh heck, I've gone off the deep end. I'll just add that I never get excited about candidates ever. It's just not in my DNA. So I'm not used this whole enthusiasm jag. It doesn't suit me, I'm afraid.