Lawrence Lessig on Money, Corruption and Politics

How to fix American politics. Money out, people, up, and “lets get on it” says Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig.

A protest inside the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Protesters are demanding that the lawmakers represent the "99 percent" and not just the corporate lobbyist and and the richest. (AP)

A protest inside the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Protesters are demanding that the lawmakers represent the "99 percent" and not just the corporate lobbyist and and the richest. (AP)

A lot of people are afraid the country’s going to hell in a hand basket. Lawrence Lessig is afraid you’re right. Specifically, afraid that big money has corrupted our politics, our Congress, our democracy – and paralyzed us from acting to keep the country great. Lessig is a South Dakota-born, Pennsylvania-raised big thinker who first took on the Internet and intellectual freedom.

Now he’s turned big-time activist for the Republic itself, with a keen diagnosis, and a plan to set things right.

This hour, On Point, we start the New Year off with a plan to save the nation.

-Tom Ashbrook


Lawrence Lessig, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is the author of Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It.


“We’ve got to work on getting a representative democracy working,” said legal scholar turned political activist Lawrence Lessig. “We can do that by destroying this corrupting influence of money in our system.”

Lessig says that our political system is so corrupted by money that it hurts both causes on the left and the right. On the left, for instance, the failure to pass global warming legislation or universal healthcare, in the face of institutional inertia. While on the right, he says, issues like simplifying the tax code have fallen victim to the same forces resisting reform. “Our current tax system with all its complexities is in part designed to make it easier for candidates, in particular congressmen, to raise money to get back to congress,” Lessig said. “All sorts of special exceptions which expire after a limited period of time are just a reason to pick up the phone and call somebody and say ‘Your exception is about to expire, here’s a good reason for you to help us fight to get it to extend.’ And that gives them the opportunity to practice what is really a type of extortion – shaking the trees of money in the private sector into their campaign coffers so that they can run for congress again.”

Those giveaways, tax breaks, and subsidies all corrupt and distort the free market, which should anger both sides of the political spectrum, he said. “Businesses increasingly recognize that their highest return on investment comes not from inventing the next great widget, instead spending money on lobbyists who can get special deals built into the tax code or built into the government spending programs that give them a higher return than any of the investment that they would ever make by investing in genuine innovation.”

So, how can the system be saved? A system of publicly funded campaigns for starters. But getting Washington to sign-off on such a system, Lessig said: they’ve got too much money to lose.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “In “Republic, Lost” Lawrence Lessig — a Harvard Law School professor and a leading advocate of applying the principles of open Web access to less technical forms of creative expression, like music, writing, and the visual arts — makes an extraordinary leap of faith.”

Boston Review “So we’re pretty good as a body politic in responding to a slap like 9/11, we’re pretty good as a body politic in responding to obvious moral wrong—Rod Blagojevich or Randy “Duke” Cunningham—but it turns out we’re not very good at responding to these invidious, systemic wrongs engaged in by people who seem to us to be decent people.”

Video Slideshow: Lessig On Money And Politics

Activist and legal scholar Lawrence Lessig’s 50-minute audio-slide show “Republic, Lost” on the corrupting power of money in politics, and what he thinks we should do about it. (Click on the photo below to access the video)


Harvard's Lawrence Lessig in the WBUR studios. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Harvard's Lawrence Lessig in the WBUR studios. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

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