POGO Senior Writer Beth Schulman recently caught up with Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig to talk about the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements, campaign finance, and the nature of corruption. Lessig is the author of Republic, Lost, one of the books on our list of 10 books that matter for 2011.
POGO: It seems like Occupy and Tea Party demonstrators confirm your sense that there is trans-partisan outrage the influence of money in politics. Can these movements find common ground in this issue?
Lessig: I do think they will get it, if it is pressed in the right way. Not sure yet what way is that right way, but I am struggling with working it out.
POGO: Between the influx of campaign cash to Super Committee members and renewed focus on the revolving door issue, a lot of people may have become cynical about the role of money in politics. Can we suspend this cynicism enough to actually solve the problem?
Lessig: Only if it mixes MORE with LESS. We need limits on independent expenditures to be sure. But we also need public funding. If we got both (in the right form), the revolving door would not be as big of an issue.
POGO: Do you believe that campaign finance reform could address the problem of contractors being “too big too fail”? It often seems like contractors—particularly those under the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security—can count on a steady stream of government deals no matter how much misconduct surrounds their work.
Lessig: Our concern should be contracts that make no economic or governmental sense, and if we eliminated the incentives for crony capitalism (at least the supply side incentives), we'd have less reason to be worried about particular kinds of contracts.
POGO: In your book, you argue that transparency is a necessary but not sufficient solution to the corrupting power of campaign cash. Are efforts to achieve transparency a tactical distraction in the struggle for the public good?
Lessig: My only criticism of the transparency community is of those not willing to be open about the fact that transparency alone is not enough. That's not many in the community—Sunlight's Ellen Miller has been a long supporter of public funding, as is Dan Newman of Maplight. But I think the link needs to be made more explicitly and regularly.
POGO: You’ve argued that because corruption is systemic, it’s most often perpetrated by well-intention, principled people—not evildoers. How can we better illuminate systemic challenges to good government?
Lessig: It is a difficult challenge since evil inspires reaction better than decent or normal. But I think if you complemented your excellent work on evil souls with more about the banality of corruption, that would be really helpful. People have got to see that even if we eliminated the Blago's of the world, we'd still have a fundamental corruption in the middle of our government.
Beth Schulman is a senior writer for POGO.
Image by Flickr user Joi.