Larry Lessig’s Corruption Copout

Having retooled Mayday PAC, Harvard professor Larry Lessig has jumped to his next project: describing the political system as ‘corrupt’ while avoiding the term for participants. His intellectual voyage travels as well as Mayday’s maiden venture.

Lessig argues corruption has two components: macro (the private funding system); and micro (quid pro quo bribes). “It is perfectly conceivable — conceptually — to imagine a corrupt institution filled with non-corrupt individuals.” But his argument logically fails. Any human system, especially a political one, is composed of aggregated individual actions. Thus, broadly, capitalism is a series of individual voluntary economic choices. Similarly socialism involves the sum of coercive bureaucratic decisions about those same choices. The system can’t be separated from the actions comprising it.


Private campaign funding either “corrupts” the individual politician through access, influence, and other perquisites or it doesn’t—regardless quid pro quo concerns.


If it doesn’t, Lessig has simply adopted Justice Kennedy’s Citizens Unitedposition: “The fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt.”


But if it does Lessig cannot avoid saying those politicians are ‘corrupt’ or at least ‘corrupted.’ His strategy to reduce micro-level corruption to quid pro quo while absolving individuals ‘macro’ corruption is a copout allowing him to avoid the uncomfortable extensions of his logic.  


Elsewhere Lessig states how private campaign funding “corrupts” individual politicians:



  •  they constantly adjust their views to what they know will help them raise money
  •  [politicians] make sure they haven’t alienated those people
  • changes in government policy are because of the way we fund campaigns


It’s telling Lessig is reduced to analogizing a heating and air condition system with mixed wiring to explain his discordant theory.


But earlier this month, when he applied it to a real political problem, his distinctions crashed. Lessig testified before the Cambridge City Council. He said their zoning decision was “unwise at best.” Corruption was at issue because of a “tight correlation between these [zoning] changes in Cambridge’s planning process, and significant contributions to members of this Council.” In fact, “No citizen . . . would . . . believe that the deviation from normal planning practice here is driven by reason, or the public interest of Cambridge citizens alone.” Despite this Lessig insistshe is not calling any individual corrupt. Shockingly, not everyone boughtit.


Lessig’s singular focus on private money exposes a reformer misconception about politics. He believes money is the source of political credibility and thus must be controlled for egalitarian reasons. But credibility hinges on several factors, all of which must be present in some combination; money alone can’t provide it, see Donald Trump.


Again Lessig’s real-world example fails him. Regarding fellow reformerZephyr Teachout’s run for New York governor, he states her “[lack of] of credibility was a function of the money.” Either Lessig is being disingenuous or his political obliviousness is off the charts. Despite Teachout’s countless political shortcomings: no previous office-holding experience, scant name recognition, scarcity of policy positions, bland public speaking, zero political infrastructure, questionable state roots, among many others, she was taken seriously. The New York Timesdissected her candidacy and seeing her one-trick-pony show declined an endorsement. Money had nothing to do with it—the paper endorsed her running mate. Her relatively strong showing means, despite her flaws, no one will ignore her next run. That’s how it works.


But Lessig refuses to see all the moving parts. To him politics is a function of money; it can be read from a graph and taught with a PowerPoint. It’s this vanity that convinced him Mayday PAC could raise enough money to “pay the ransom” and “reclaim democracy,” with slick adverts and celebrity endorsements.


In Bob Bauer’s formulation, Lessig is the guy searching for his lost keys under the street lamp because it’s the only place lit; or in Bastiat’s words, the guy applauding the derelict that breaks the window because it employs the glazier. What Lessig sees is only a fraction of the political world he purports to explain.


By Paul Jossey