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October 23, 2008

Lack of independence feeds U.S. democracy crisis, prof says

America is in the midst of a democracy crisis, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig recently told a standing-room-only crowd here.

“We’re in the middle of a war, paralyzed by terror. In a city some 373 miles from here, the financial system of our nation is collapsing. Across our nation the financial system of millions of families has already collapsed. And yet at the center of this mess is a government, the product of a democracy, which too few of us respect: A president favorably thought of by less than a third of the nation. A Congress favorably thought of by less than 10 percent,” Lessig said Sept. 25 as he presented this year’s Sara Fine Institute lecture, “A Declaration for Independence.”

“More people supported the British crown before the Revolution,” Lessig said. “It must change.”

Blaming crony capitalism, Lessig said, “The crisis is caused at its core by a certain kind of dependency: dependency on money in the wrong place.”

Drawing upon examples in which money influences trust, Lessig cited travel guide publisher Lonely Planet and the Wikipedia web site’s refusal of advertising — policies that by design create trust that the content is independent.

Conversely, the influence or appearance of influence by lobbies has eroded trust in the government, Lessig said, adding that some 88 percent of voters in his congressional district believe money buys results in Congress.

“Trust is built by building walls that separate,” said Lessig, who is among the founders of The movement encourages citizens to prompt legislative candidates to commit to four tenets: taking no money from lobbyists or political action committees; ending earmarks; increasing transparency in Congress, and supporting publicly financed campaigns.

Lessig said both conservatives and liberals are in denial about the problem. “It isn’t the most important problem, but it is the first problem,” he said, comparing the democracy crisis to the problems of an alcoholic who might be losing family, job and health, but can’t solve any of those issues without first dealing with the alcoholism.

Lessig noted that the framers of America’s Constitution were “obsessed” with the concept of independence — not from Britain but from corruption that was rising among representatives to state legislatures due to dependence on special interests.

Lessig quoted Thomas Jefferson, who said, “We should look forward to a time, and that’s not a distant one, when corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government and be spread by them through the body of the people, when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price.” Lessig said that “the common aim of our founders was to found institutions, constitutions, against this improper dependence.”

“In this they failed,” he said, citing corruption among 19th-century politicians who went to government for the purpose of taking what they could back home. A different form of corruption arose in the 20th century. “It was no longer members trying to feather their nest,” he said, but instead, “a constant attention on money for the purpose of being re-elected — either them individually or their party,” with politicians calculating how their actions affect their ability to raise money.

Citing estimates that members of Congress spend 30-70 percent of their time fundraising, Lessig said, “There has never been a Congress that has worked less than this Congress, if by work you mean doing the job of legislating. Instead, their work has been feeding the dependency that increasingly defines what it is to be a member of this Congress.”

This dynamic is exactly the dependency the framers feared, Lessig said. “When [James] Madison was worried about the way our government would be threatened by factions, he had in mind exactly the sort of thing that Ronald Reagan used to talk about.

“Reagan used to say, ‘A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the treasury with the result that democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy.’”

What Madison and Reagan missed, Lessig said, is that today’s crisis stems not from the poor taking over Washington aiming to take what they can for themselves. “It’s the exactly opposite. It’s that the rich have found ways through crony capitalism to capture government and use it for themselves. They use the power of government to capture government.”

The corruption, Lessig said, is subtle in form, yet “deadly for democracy.”

Key to fixing the problem is restoring trust by removing the dependence on campaign fundraising that can lead to improper influence on elected officials.

What is needed, he said, is “a declaration for the idea that we restore independence in the government and its ability to do its work by resolving to remake the economy of influence that defines Washington right now, so we can trust them again — we can trust what government does. That should be our objective.”

A link to a video of Lessig’s lecture is available at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 5

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