The corrupting effects of “money in politics” – campaign finance and lobbying – are a frequent target for political reform. The underlying idea for this agenda seems to be that elected officials promote particular interests because they expect monetary reward, either as contribution for their re-election campaigns or, through some other channel, to their personal pockets.

Lawrence Lessig, law professor at Harvard, has now announced a presidential campaign that he presents as being based solely on the notion of tackling the corrupting influence of money in politics. Lessig seems to believe that a wide consensus among US voters can be created around this issue and that this issue would be compelling enough for voters to de-prioritize other issues to support this one since – as Lessig presents things – the issue of money in politics is preliminary to all other issues because until it is dealt with the corrupting influence of money makes progress on other issues unfeasible.

Lessig’s presents three items in his reform agenda. Two of those items – changing the way electoral districts are created, and reducing obstacles to voting – are commonplace electoral reform items and seem not to have much to do with money in particular. The third item is about pouring more money into electoral campaign – either by using public-funded matching or by using campaign funds vouchers. Those are presumably supposed to decrease the corrupting influence of money because the additional campaign funds are not a-priori unequally distributed.

Lessig seems to believe that with his activism and with this campaign he is striking at the root of the problem of modern politics. There are several reasons to infer that he is misguided.

At the most superficial level, as “money in politics” reforms go Lessig’s medicine is very limited. First, Lessig’s proposals don’t address lobbying and personal financial favors at all. To the extent they address the influence of money on politics, his proposals deal exclusively with campaign finance. Additionally, Lessig seeks to avoid limiting the use of money, and so unless the amount of money he proposes to add to the electoral campaigns is large (over a hundred dollars per citizen) funds from other sources would make a non-negligible part of campaign expenditure.

Second, Whether or not Lessig’s reform agenda is too timid, Lessig appears to be overly optimistic about the willingness of voters to abandon existing political attachments and agendas in favor supporting an unknown, inexperienced, single issue candidate, however popular his general message is. If it was that easy to create a viable reform candidacy out of nowhere around a popular idea we would have been seeing many more of those. In fact, Lessig should have learned a measure of skepticism about such hopes for forming an instant consensus through his recent experience with a similar effort.

At a somewhat deeper level, Lessig also shows uncritical optimism about the effectiveness of an effort such as the one he proposes, even in the unlikely case that it is successful electorally. The campaign finance agenda in the US is over a century old. Other countries have been struggling with the same issues for decades. Lessig’s notion that he would be able to settle this problem in a single once-and-for-all effort is nothing short of hubris. Even assuming that the general measures Lessig proposes would be an effective curb on the power of the rich to influence policy, taking care of all the details must be a long term effort. No quick fix can be expected to be successful.

But, fourthly, Lessig’s campaign finance proposal shows little promise of being effective. Whether additional campaign money is to be raised through vouchers or through matching funds, the prerequisite for raising this money is mass renown – the voters have to become aware of a candidate and her campaign before they can support her. Thus even if the majority of a candidate’s overall campaign budget is ultimately raised through small donations, it is the “seed money” – the initial amount of money that allows the candidate to reach the public so they can consider supporting her – that would differentiate viable candidates from the crowd. Since the seed money has to be raised before the public is aware of the candidate, that seed money would have to be raised from a small number of donors. Those initial donors would be the ones screening the candidates long before public money becomes part of the campaign, and they would remain, as they are today the king makers (and unmakers) of electoral politics.

Finally and most fundamentally, since Lessig is ostensibly trying to turn the electoral system into a democratic system, he is inevitably on a fool’s errand. Even if all the arguments above are invalid and somehow through his efforts the rich lose their influence on politics, the principle of distinction – which states that normal people cannot be elected – implies that the power the rich would lose would be seized by some other elite group rather than become equally distributed among the citizens. Unless Lessig believes that there is some elite group who would serve the interests of the people better than the current ruling elite, and that this elite would acquire the power his proposals will wrest away from the rich, then wresting that power from the rich serves no good purpose.

The way Lessig casually ignores all the objections enumerated above – theoretical arguments, the experience of others and even his own experience – makes it hard to avoid a suspicion that Lessig does indeed believe that an aristocratic alternative to the money elite exists, and that he is its representative.


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