Lawrence Lessig: Democracy vouchers

Jorge Cancio drew my attention to Lawrence Lessig’s proposal for fixing government.

We should have seen this coming: if McChesney and Nichols offered us a fix for elitist media by using media vouchers, Prof. Lessig will have us fix elitist government using democracy vouchers (book, article, interview):

So long as elections cost money, we won’t end Congress’s dependence on its funders. But we can change it. We can make “the funders” “the people.” Following Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, we could adopt a system of small-dollar public funding for Congress.

Here’s just one way: almost every voter pays at least $50 in some form of federal taxes. So imagine a system that gave a rebate of that first $50 in the form of a “democracy voucher.” That voucher could then be given to any candidate for Congress who agreed to one simple condition: the only money that candidate would accept to finance his or her campaign would be either “democracy vouchers” or contributions from citizens capped at $100. No PAC money. No $2,500 checks. Small contributions only. And if the voter didn’t use the voucher? The money would pass to his or her party, or, if an independent, back to this public funding system.

Lessig apparently doesn’t perceive that his proposed fix is reproducing in dollars what the system already implements in votes. After all, if a candidate cannot win without money, the candidate surely cannot win without votes. If the rich are influential in the current system because it takes money to gather votes, why won’t they remain influential because it would take money to gather voucher money?

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15 Responses

  1. Agreed. Also, I don’t see how this should be policed, since as far as I understand it, politicians don’t need to take PAC money: The PAC campaigns “independently” on their behalf.

    The completely unnecessary demand that you have to pay $50 in federal taxes to be entitled to such a voucher, makes me question just what Lessig has been thinking here. Why would it be desirable to disenfranchise the very poor further?

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  2. One issue worth remembering is that in any political system I can conceive, the rich will have more political influence than the non-rich. I don’t think that any system could eliminate that influence. Athens certainly didn’t; the orators and other members of the political class were invariably wealthy. This will be true unless some means is devised to eliminate concentrations of wealth without thereby concentrating something else, like political power, in undesirable ways. And so the question should not be, will the rich have more influence under this system, but, can the large influence of the rich be rendered less harmful and/or harnessed in beneficial ways. Again, Athens arguably accomplished this, and I believe sortition has a large role to play in doing so today, but I don’t think it will result in equal political power across all economic classes.

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  3. > The completely unnecessary demand that you have to pay $50 in federal taxes to be entitled to such a voucher, makes me question just what Lessig has been thinking here. Why would it be desirable to disenfranchise the very poor further?

    Maybe I was being naive, but I understood this as some sort of a notional rebate, not a real rebate in which those who don’t pay don’t get the voucher. Tracking all forms of federal taxes (including for example taxes on gasoline) would be very hard anyway.

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  4. > One issue worth remembering is that in any political system I can conceive, the rich will have more political influence than the non-rich. I don’t think that any system could eliminate that influence.

    Sure – my point was not that this proposal is not likely to eliminate the influence of the rich, but that it is unlikely to even decrease the influence. This is essentially just another layer of voting – voting with vouchers – and so maintains all the essential problems of the current layer.

    > Athens certainly didn’t; the orators and other members of the political class were invariably wealthy.

    I agree. The assembly was a mass-political arena and thus generated the political elitism we are familiar with in our society. The difference between the Athenian assembly in which in theory anyone could speak and the Spartan assembly in which only the ephors could speak was largely a matter of formality.

    As I see things, very schematically, the allotted Boule and the magistracies were the democratic element in Athens, while the elected strategoi and the unelected orators were the oligarchical element. A society that aims to be democratic should create and strengthen the modern counterparts of the first element and find ways to diffuse and weaken the modern counterparts of the second.

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  5. Clearly the author does not understand what Lessig is wanting to change. He is not proposing this for a means of changing how one would get elected but how they are influenced. If the majority of an elected officials time is spend with large money benefactors whose interests do you think he would have in mind when he does anything be it voting for laws, proposing them, or dealing with other politicians.

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  6. Anonymous,

    The author understands very well what the proposal is. The author is drawing an analogy between the process of getting votes on election day and the process of getting people to send their vouchers to a particular candidate during the campaign – an analogy which you, like Lessig, apparently have not contemplated.

    If the processes are very similar, why would we expect the influential actors to be very different? If serving the rich is useful in order to gather votes, why would serving the rich not be important when gathering vouchers?

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  7. Is it really so wrong that the working, tax paying citizens ( the majority that pays for what happens in this country) has more say? Really is there something wrong with the people who actually pay the taxes, having a louder voice? Why are the people they are supporting supposed to speak louder then them? that isjust crazy talk.

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  8. Nothing wrong with average citizen having more say – it is what is usually referred to as democracy. Indeed, my point is that the problem with Prof. Lessig’s proposal is that, intentions aside, it is unlikely to result in the average citizen having more say.

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  9. >One issue worth remembering is that in any political system I can conceive, the rich will have more political influence than the non-rich. I don’t think that any system could eliminate that influence . . . And so the question should not be, will the rich have more influence under this system, but, can the large influence of the rich be rendered less harmful and/or harnessed in beneficial ways.

    Agreed. The rich and powerful will always find ways of influencing the agenda disproportionately, whatever the representative mechanism (elective or sortive). Better therefore to protect the integrity of the whole by restricting elite dominance to one representative mechanism (election), thereby ensuring that the sortitive (decision-making) body is kept free of the influence of the rich and powerful. Allocating the agenda-setting function to sortition would simply allow the rich and powerful to re-enter by the back door.

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  10. C’mon Yorum, don’t be such a negative Nelly. The proposals from Lessig (to cap contributions at $100, eliminate PAC money, and publicly fund campaign contributions) have real potential to reduce (hopefully eliminate) lobbying of our representatives and change their incentives to do the bidding of the masses rather than the bidding of the highest bidders.

    Rather than point out the shortcomings, how about using that big brain of yours to identify possible solutions as well. There will undoubtedly be some kinks to work out, that doesn’t mean all of the proposals are ill conceived as the article implies.

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  11. Hey! This entire blog is about a possible solution – the only one that I believe will make a significant difference. What do you think about a sortition based system?

    As for Lessig’s proposal: No doubt he means well, but before he expects us to line up behind his proposal, he needs to explain how it is materially different than what has been tried before. People have been coming up with fixes to the electoral system for decades, if not centuries. There is a chance that one day one of those fixes, or a combination of those fixes, will work. I am not optimistic – not only because of the negative experience, but also because there is a good theoretical reason to believe the problems of the electoral system are inherent.

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  12. The thrills and embarrassments of (semi-)democratic media:

    A twitter experiment in Sweden has taken a wrong turn. The public @sweden twitter account created quite a stir on Tuesday as its curator sent out tweets that many interpreted as being anti-semitic.

    In a later tweet Sonja Abraham, the current curator of the account, apologized for the messages, saying “I’m sorry if some of you find the question offensive. Thats was not my purpose. I just don’t get why some people hates jews so much.”

    @sweden is part of the Curators of Sweden project, which allows ordinary Swedes to tweet from the nation’s official account about, well, whatever they want.

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  13. […] has an article about Lawrence Lessig’s reform proposals. Lessig has been promoting his proposal for “democracy vouchers”, but it turns out that he has another proposal to make – a Constitutional Convention selected […]

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  14. cleaning things up is easy make congress pass a law that no office holder can earn more money then the office pays for the rest of their lives . all the graft stops there. also pass a ruling that the congressmen are not given immunity end of back door trading and bribes. Result a lawful government

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  15. Having an allotted body regulating and overseeing the incomes of elected officials seems like it could serve as an early application of sortition in politics.

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