|By: Benjamin Droz
There is a reason why I read political books. It is not because I love the often dry, statistics-filled, obviously self-promoting style of similar texts; it is because these texts often have a therapeutic quality. I follow and participate in politics in this country, because I feel a nagging frustration with all that surrounds us. What drives me forward is waiting and hoping that others want to scratch the same itch. In Republic, Lost, Lawrence Lessig adheres to what is most basically true in the United States and refuses to align himself ideologically. He proceeds to emphatically and powerfully denounce the money-carved path that our government follows.
Lessig begins by stating that Americans overwhelmingly believe that money changes votes in Congress. Lessig cites figures as high as 71% of Republicans and 81% of Democrats in agreement, although there are few high-profile cases or openly corrupt people accepting bribes and being hauled off to prison whom reform-minded individuals can point to. This is not because there is no one to prosecute such people. It is because the people in the government and lobbying world are intelligent and they obey the letter of the law, and the letter of law creates perverse incentives. But since there is no single person who is wrong in the eyes of the law, or who is accepting direct bribes, the evil of this hideous edifice is compounded a thousandfold. Lessig sets out to convince readers that the energies of the citizenry are truly needed.
Lessig points to one simple truth in his book: the American people overwhelmingly believe that there is a problem, and they disapprove of Congress. That in itself is enough to demand change, he says. However, Lessig argues that the biggest obstacle facing any would-be reformer is the lack of a smoking gun for any of these illicit activities. Any would-be reformer would face serious obstacles trying to find evidence of a specific Congressman receiving money and then changing his behavior and voting patterns to align with the interests of the donor. This sort of straightforward pattern will never be found. It does not exist.
There is no need to buy a politician who does not believe in what you do, because there are plenty of politicians who will believe in it. Campaigns cost immense amounts of money, and Congress members do not have large salaries, so most politicians must fundraise three to five days a week, according to Lessig. This allows for lobbyists to exert influence by financially supporting candidates. The process, Lessig says, does not necessarily change votes, but rather draws all of Congress’s attention to certain areas of interest. Business will always spend huge money, because, as Lessig says, the return on this sort of “investment” is upwards of 700%. This “investment” is the money that businesses spend on lobbying efforts, and the “returns” are the profits that the businesses experience as a result of urged legislative action.
Lessig provides many specific examples. One is the persistent question of why taxes are so complicated for the average individual and why the IRS does not just send people a simple tax bill to pay, like a credit card bill. This sort of reform was under way in California until Inuit, the maker of TurboTax software, spent millions of dollars to kill the reform. This sort of legislative perversion is problematic if Lessig’s conjecture is assumed to be correct, because it means that Congress represents solely the interests of the affluent. Obviously, this is quite a claim, and Lessig’s examples led me to be somewhat skeptical, but the facts are well-cited. I walked away and found myself wondering just what lies behind Congressmen’s actual decisions, and this skepticism and “lens” through which to look at politicians’ behavior is the book’s most valuable takeaway.
Lessig addresses the problem of campaign finance corruption directly in his four prescriptions. First, Congress could pass campaign finance reform, difficult as that may be. Secondly, an activist could run for election in multiple Congressional districts continually. This process would cost incumbents money by forcing them to campaign hard until they work toward campaign finance reform. Alternatively, a President could keep Congress from functioning until Congress passed campaign finance reform. Finally, a Constitutional Convention could pass a campaign finance reform amendment.
Of these four options, Lessig thinks that the Constitutional amendment is the most viable, as it neatly skirts Supreme Court rulings. This belief largely stems from the fact that a Constitutional amendment would be more expedient in simply outlawing the behavior that Lessig believes to be at the heart of most of America’s ills. Lessig believes that campaign finance reform could take the shape of a $50 voucher for each voter, with outside donations limited to $100 per person.
Lessig is broad in his scope, persuasive in his arguments, and biting in his bipartisan criticism, but the largest issue that he leaves on the table is one that will not easily be circumvented: all of the solutions that he advocates require people to run for office or for laws to be passed by existing legislators — all without falling into the system that exists. Truly, Lessig demands huge efforts from a united citizenry, a citizenry that needs to be far more active in its efforts to reform the government.
This article originally appeared in the spring edition of PPR.
Photo credit: unitedrepublic.org