Lessig and emergent corruption

It is with interest that I’ve noted Lawrence Lessig’s announcement a career shift away from his work on restoring sanity to the copyright regime. I too once grew frustrated and fatigued with the policy process around copyrights, patents, and privacy because of that which Lessig now calls “corruption.” (Fortunately, Lessig had the fortitude to launch Creative Commons and help give voice to the free culture movement despite his much invoked pessimism.) By “corruption” he doesn’t mean bald bribery but systemic and often hidden “queering” of the political process away from genuine discussion and reason, and towards monied interests. (See my little “done with privacy” essay I wrote when I had gotten fed up in the privacy space.)

I agree – and hope – that if there was a way to tackle this corruption issue, other concerns might be more amenable to improvement. And I think Lessig is the man for the job. In addition to his passion, commitment, and brilliance – and despite his claim that he’s changing his focus – I think his expertise and history with free-speech and constitutional law is highly relevant to this new endeavor. I say this because I’ve always felt that this issue of “corruption,” or perhaps “monied influence” is a very American sort of paradox: the democratic ideal of free speech, we each say our piece, entangled with a market and sociological reality, we are influenced most by those with the most resources.

For example, I have been a grudging advocate of campaign finance reform. I am an advocate because of the problems I see in our present system, but hesitant because I can’t easily square any corrective intervention with my free-speech values. At times I think that the solution is to attack the corporate angle: companies should not be considered persons, nor should they have civic rights (i.e., to support a candidate) as a person does. But I’m not sure this would solve the problem – some wealthy might simply (continue) to act as agents for their corporate symbionts as it is in their own personal short-term interest.

So, I think – and hope – Lessig can help. Yet I’m surprised to see in his musings that he’s worrying about questions of intention: is Hillary Clinton consciously taking money for votes, or perhaps being subconsciously influenced? (I would suspect there is some social and political psychology research on opinion formation and social influence that might be relevant.) But sadly, while there is plenty of conscious and unconscious influence peddling going on, the problem is actually much harder.

Consider a scenario in which every politician is scrupulously honest and true to her beliefs – a best case relative to our present. Also, support, particularly money, can bestow much power upon any politician to influence the public – a case much like our own today. In such a scenario resource rich minorities can exert disproportionate influence counter to the interests of the majority of the present, majority of the future (e.g., the long-term), and reason itself. While this might be “corrupt” it requires no conscious or even subconscious persuasion from money. Rather, it is an emergent result of the social, psychological, and system dynamics of influence: supporters simply select the politician; the politician through media purchases influencing the public. And it just so happens that this is sometimes counter to our own public interests, and not easily fixed.

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