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Mr. Lessig Goes To Washington

Publication Date: 
May 29, 2008
The Nation
Christopher Hayes

Professor Lawrence Lessig is quoted in The Nation about his transformation from reforming copyright to reforming Congress. The lengthy article details Professor Lessig's path from cyberspace guru to his new role in transforming Washington:

"In some sense," he says, "I think that education made it impossible for me to be the kind of narrow, simple conservative that I was." He went on to clerk on the Supreme Court for Antonin Scalia (he was the lone liberal clerk), and has become an outspoken progressive. He was an early supporter of Howard Dean's presidential campaign and invited him to guest blog on his site.


"There's a speech that Reagan gives in 1965," Lessig says, "where he talks about how democracy always fails because once the people recognize they can vote themselves largess, they just vote themselves largess and the fiscal policy is destroyed. Well, Reagan had it half-right. It's not as if it's the poor out there who have figured out how to suck the money out of the rich. It's exactly the other way around."

In fighting this corporate socialism, Lessig thinks there are allies to be found among the "intellectually honest" right. He points out that the need to raise money from industry provides an incentive to grow government and maintain regulation as a kind of leverage to extract donations from industry. He's made battling earmarks, a conservative cause célèbre, a Change Congress core mission; the first member of Congress to endorse Change Congress was Jim Cooper, a conservative blue-dog Democrat who is eyed suspiciously by the party's activist base. Lessig's touchstone in his conservative outreach is his father, who struggled every year to meet his company's pension obligations, only to learn years later that big companies like Bethlehem Steel had an exemption in the law so they didn't have to meet the same standards. "Now, from my modern political perspective, that's exactly the thing I think is most outrageous about how the government functions," says Lessig. "And from my dad's perspective, that's the most absurd thing about how government functions."


This money, Lessig says, insidiously distorts Congressional outcomes and priorities because Congress members don't experience it as corruption. "Let's say you go to Congress," says Lessig, "and you believe there are two problems to deal with: piracy of copyrighted materials and welfare mothers who are really getting screwed by the system. You open up shop, and a million [lobbyists] come in and say we've got a thousand things to tell you about piracy, and nobody comes into your office and says we're going to help you with the welfare moms. So you shift your focus, but you never feel it. You think: maybe I could've spent more time on welfare moms, but I'm having a real effect on stopping piracy! That's the dynamic that is so critical here."

Of course, good-government reformers have been decrying the influence of money since at least the late nineteenth century. For all of Lessig's status as a visionary (he literally wrote the book on cyberspace law), what's most striking is that, as he admits, Change Congress doesn't embody any "new ideas." He envisions it as a movement tool kit that connects citizens to the work of the reform groups that already exist, a kind of "Google Maps mashup," as he puts it.

"There have been all sorts of DC-based organizations that have tried to crack this nut, and I think they've hit the limit of what the 'Let's send out an e-mail to our 100,000 members and tell them to write their Congressmen' model can do," he says. "We have an opportunity--and it won't last long--to take advantage of the uncertainty that Congress has about how the Net actually works. They don't get it right now. And while they've learned how to ignore 1,000 e-mails, they haven't quite figured out what to do about fifty blogs talking about various legislation or meet-up events. So there's an opportunity to leverage the technology and the irrational insecurity of members of Congress, who look at any objectively insignificant resistance as something to be dealt with immediately."


For a short while last year Professor Lessig even thought of running for congress to take the late Congressman Tom Lantos' seat. He is quoted about that:

"When I was thinking of running," Lessig says, "the biggest pushback I got was from all these senior politico types who are like, Look, you can never sell process reform; nobody will ever buy it; if that's your message, you cannot win. And my response is, Well, we've got to figure out how to sell it, for Chrissake! It's not like we have a choice."