BOOK REVIEW: “Republic, Lost” by Lawrence Lessig

This is a very important book.

This is not another partisan screed telling us how the Right is trying to screw you over or how the Left is treasonous and gladly handing our country over to terrorists. This is a book about how our system of democracy has been corrupted by money, and how that frustrates both the Left and the Right.

Lawrence Lessig (@lessig) is a public intellectual in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He came to my attention as one of the leading experts on copyright law. Plus, his unique style of lecturing with his quick change presentations garner him a lot of attention (http://blip.tv/lessig). From my observations of Lessig’s talks, he became sensitized to the topic of the corruption of our government by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known as the Sonny Bono Act. The main effect of this act was to allow the Walt Disney Corporation to extend its copyright on Mickey Mouse to 2019 at the earliest. Lessig observed up close how this act was designed to benefit a few entrenched interests at the expense of the general public.

At that point, Lessig started to educate himself and, in turn, the rest of us on how Congress is actually working toward goals which diverge from what the greater general public wants. The foundational text for Lessig’s work is Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money. In particular, one scene from this book has been retold many times by Lessig and appears again in this book, where John Stennis, a Democratic senator from Mississippi from 1947 to 1989. According to Kaiser’s book, in 1982 when Stennis was the chairperson of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a colleague asked him to attend a fundraiser where defense contractors would be present. Stennis replied, “Would that be proper? I hold life and death over these companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.” This is then compared to Max Baucus, who raised $5 million from the finance, insurance and health care industries – all areas that he oversaw as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Lessig puts this and many other anecdotes together into a convincing argument about how democracy has been corrupted not by bad people (although there are bad people in government, cf. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and William Jefferson), but by a bad system that creates the wrong incentives. Politicians need money to retain their power, lobbyists provide that money. But conversely, lobbyists need the ability to influence public policy and so the politicians create the law and regulations that the lobbyists work to shape.

Lessig is a former Reagan Republican turned liberal, so while many of his examples betray his political leanings, he is also able to speak convincingly of how the current structure keeps the Right from achieving their goals of a smaller government and tax simplification.

Lessig ends the book with a prescription for how to break the hold of special interest money by the “Grant and Franklin Project”. I’ll leave the details for you to read in his book, but the name comes from the pictures on the $50 and $100 bills. Plus, Lessig gives his readers a set of strategies for making headway on the project.

This is a persuasively argued book. Campaign Finance Reform may very well be the single most important public policy issue facing our country. For without it, it may be impossible to make progress on any of the other monumental issues that seem to continue without any foreseeable roads to resolution.

Read this book. Go to Rootstrikers.org to join the cause. Ask the candidates running in your district or state about supporting citizen-funded elections. And by all means, add Lawrence Lessig to the list of people that you seek out to listen to. You will be better for it and the future of our republic may depend on it.

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It