Lessig's "One Way Forward" review

I have read the Kindle edition of Larry Lessig’s short book “One Way Forward – The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic” and have a couple of comments.

I’ll post it under the “global meltdown” category, since Lessig claims in the book that global warming can’t be solved before the problem of campaign finance reform.

First off, I would like to point to the political philosophy of H.L. Hunt, who was once considered the world’s wealthiest man. Wikipedia also describes him as a “conservative activist”.

I am bringing this up because of a column published by Mike Royko on September 5, 1986 (found in the collection “DR. KOOKIE, YOU’RE RIGHT!”).

There he has this to say about H.L. Hunt:

“It wasn’t clear why he wanted to talk to me, although I wondered if he planned to convert me to his way of thinking, which was so far right that he made Barry Goldwater sound like a pinko.

“For example, one of his pet political theories was that a person should cast as many votes as he had dollars.

“That, of course, would put the selection of presidents and Congress in the hands of a few billionaires like Hunt, which he thought was only fair. He didn’t see any logic in a guy who was broke casting a vote.”

That’s interesting when discussing Lessig’s book in a couple of ways.

First off, what was described as “far right” in 1986 seems to be normalcy right now. And if Lessig’s analysis is correct, H.L. Hunt and his contemporary equivalents would obviously approve.

Why exactly are they wrong? After all, someone like Bill Gates, who has the most money of all Americans, is way smarter than the average American voter. So giving more influence to rich people should, all things equal, lead to more informed and better policy.

Lessig doesn’t discuss that particular point, but I think he should do so. Maybe there is something about it in “Republic, Lost”, which I haven’t read yet.

Next, if people like H.L. Hunt now own Congress, as Lessig asserts, what makes him think that there is any chance that Congress will do anything to change that status quo?

In other words, there is a fundamental contradiction in two of his positions. Either one of them needs to be wrong as a matter of logic.

If the description of the problem is right and it is impossible to solve anything (including global warming) as long as campaign financing is not adressed, that obviously means that it is impossible to solve campaign financing in a way that is not compatible with what the money interests now calling the shots want. Does Lessig think his position will get any support from the lobbyists?

If on the other hand there are exceptions to that rule (Lessig needs to think there is an exception for his proposal, and he notes also the SOPA/PIPA fight as an exception), then his position that nothing can ever be done on other problems before campaign finance is solved needs some qualifications.

For another example let’s just note that the Keystone XL pipeline was recently defeated for the moment against what the fossil fuel money interests wanted. So obviously the idea that nothing can be done about climate change before Lessig’s issue is resolved is not true without exceptions.

There is also another exception to the rule that politics in America is sold to the highest bidder. Not everyone is allowed to bid. There are rules in place that restrict campaign donations which exclude foreign interests from the process.

That said, I do agree with the core analysis. Politics in America is very strongly influenced by outside money interests. And the fact alone that politicians need to waste most of their time on fund-raising means that they have so much less time to study the issues and come up with smart solutions. That might explain why so many Republicans still don’t understand the threat of global warming.

Actually, it is even worse than Lessig describes it in “One Way Forward”. The dynamic explained there is that politicians need the support from lobbyists for their campaigns. But all a successful campaign gets them is a couple of years with a rather small public salary. The real financial rewards for a politician come once he gets defeated or retires and works on the lobbyist side of the machine.

Obviously, there are much better prospects for that for someone who closely listened to his future bosses when in office.

On the “Way Forward”, I don’t share the optimism of Lessig that there might be a chance to solve the problem through legislation or an Amendent to the Constitution, which requires even more political support. If the premise is true that money interests call the shots, the people spending the money obviously won’t allow that to happen.

That leaves the way that has proved successful in both the SOPA/PIPA and Keystone XL cases. Fight with Internet movements against the money interests.

Fortunately, the Internet makes it possible to communicate much cheaper and much more effectively than a television ad campaign.

Here is what Rick Falkvinge had to say about the point in a recent post (I am not discussing his position on copyright there, only the process question):

By 2010, about half the population was directly or indirectly involved in this preservation or sharing of culture: many in a household gain from one person taking such civic responsibility. In Europe, that means 250 million people. Put another way, it means 250 million votes.

250 million European votes trump 250 million Euros in lobbying money, every single time.

250 million Euros in lobbying money is quite a chunk. But it won’t help in all cases.

I think Falkvinge is right (and Lessig is wrong). Not all causes are decided by money.

One other point. While it is certainly a good idea to devote some time and energy to finding the best way to go forward, the idea that one should do nothing about global warming before campaign finance reform is solved needs to be rejected soundly. It would lead to losing time, and there is no time to lose on the global warming issue.

The book is also very interesting for its publication model. Lessig says that it will be “licenced freely”. I would like to point him to the excellent “Creative Commons” website for that purpose, which might have been worth mentioning in the context.

And he then goes on to say that a second version of the book will “live on a wiki”. It will be very interesting to see how that experiment turns out.

One possible outcome would of course be having lobbyists pay interns at the “Heartland Institute” or some other such organization to heavily edit the wiki, watering down its content.

I sure hope that money interests don’t get to decide on the future content of “One Way Forward”. But with a wiki, I don’t see how that would be prevented.

Update March 15, 2012:

This tweet from “United Republic” says that a congressman becoming a lobbyist gets a raise of 1,452% on average, which kind of confirms my point that this might be even more of a problem than campaign contributions.

One Comment

  1. […] At the time I mentioned Lawrence Lessig’s effort to reform voting in the United States (Rootstrikers), which Mr. Masunaga was not familiar with, but seemed interested in. I pointed out that Lessig has an impossible task before him, since if all decisions in Congress are determined by lobby money, the last thing the lobbyists will let pass is any change of that situation, as blogged before in my review of Lessig’s book “One Way Forward”. […]

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