Lessig's anti-corruption lecture -- alpha version

I've been avidly following Larry Lessig's switch from fighting for sane copyright to fighting to end corruption since he announced his retirement from the copyfight last June. He's put together the "alpha version" of his lecture on the subject and uploaded it to the net for public review and commentary. I think it's fantastic -- Larry is one of the great forces for good in the universe. Link

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  1. Here are the rules:

    1. Corporations posses the right to do as they please, how they please and to whom they please.
    2. Government’s only role is to mediate contract disputes between corporations and to defend corporate interests at home and abroad. It has no other role in society whatsoever.
    3. You have no rights save the right to consume. You posses no human rights and corporations have no duties or obligations to respect your person.

    Welcome to the Corporate Empire.

  2. In his homiletic about corruption, Mr. Lessig’s arguments are as abstruse as his style of speaking is academic and pretentious. Perhaps well intentioned, he nevertheless reveals himself to be an elitist of the highest order when he intones, “The certainty of failure is not an excuse not to do something—it’s no excuse for not doing anything—it’s the reason that all of us must participate in this work—we especially—the most wealthy secure articulate within our polity, we especially have this obligation—because if not us, if not this group—then who within our society has the opportunity to do this?” In other words, those who benefit most in our society, indeed, those who are most responsible for corruption are the ones we should first look to for a solution. Is he out of his mind? Uh, will someone tell Mr. Lessig the simple truth: change does not usually come from the sector of society which benefits most from the status quo?

    But Mr. Lessig takes his own responsibility as an elite quite seriously and one can descry from his delivery and style—one filled with pregnant pauses offset by what can only be described as a muted grandiosity— that he has a high sense of self-importance and purpose. He begins by taking Al Gore to task for not casting wider blame for the failure of George Bush’s presidency in his recent book, The Assault on Reason. Why does Gore fail to point the finger of blame at the Democrats, he asks. Sure Gore has assembled a powerful argument for impeachment, Mr. Lessig avers, along with various and sundry incriminating exhibits against the chief executive, so much so that no doubt is left that he should be impeached, but Gore never takes the Democrats to task for failing to act.

    For their failure to do anything, should we not hold the Democrats almost as responsible as Bush? This is the device that Mr. Lessig uses in an attempt to heighten our awareness to our own responsibility for the sad state of our government. If We are the solution, then We must first be alerted to the terrible job that We are currently doing.

    It seems as if Mr. Lessig can’t get away from the idea that if corruption exists it must be a result of collective complicity and or complacency. This is classic puritanical thinking—if bad things happen to people, in this case a government shot through with corruption—then people must have brought it on themselves somehow. In suggesting this, Mr. Lessig demonstrates how little he knows about what causes bad government and how mummified his thinking is. It is evident too that Mr. Lessig never challenges his own assumptions about the hallowed Constitution and the role it might play in corrupt government.
    Still, it is clear that Mr. Lessig attempts to go a little further than the ordinary investigator by trying to identify, in his quest to do something about corruption, root causes. Unfortunately he ends up in the wrong place. It’s a good thing that his quest has just begun. Therefore, since Mr. Lessig has done good work before, I openly call on him to reexamine some of his assumptions. Certainly it is true that we need to look to The People for reform, but to all people and not just those supposedly privileged among us who are “wealthy, secure, and articulate”. Additionally, in trying to understand why things are the way they are, avoid blaming people—aside from coming off as parochial, it is probably wrong. People respond to a given set of incentives in predictable ways. There may be differences among individuals, but these differences diminish as the number in question grows. You can’t change the way people respond to incentives, but you can change the incentives they respond to. Bearing this in mind, the problem lies not with the people (banish that streak of puritanical thinking!), but with the nature and structure of government.

    In conclusion, Mr. Lessig did have a few good points in his speech, but his idea that society is best improved by the efforts of the elites among us is dangerous and wrong. People act according the their interests. If elites are able to reform government in any way it will be for their own benefit. Mr. Lessig’s proposed solution is for us to change our attitude about corruption. How this is to take place he doesn’t really elaborate except by hinting that technology may hold the answer. He might be right about this, but it might but we might also need deeper reforms. Mr. Lessig fails to examine this possibility.

    The idea that Mr. Lessig would reflexively look to elites for change can only mean that he is himself an elite (as is generally the case for anyone given a platform of any significance) with all of the normative values that this might imply. His error, therefore, is one that is as automatic and as ineluctable as Columbus’ assumption that the denizen’s of the New World were on their way to hell and were therefore in need of help from him and his God.

    I would think that it would be somewhat self-evident anyway that Democratic reform, something which may hopefully lead to less corruption— would almost by definition need to be democratic. The truth is that people do not need help from elites. Most of the problems our government currently experiences could be solved if the mechanisms for expanding popular power were created and implemented. The People know what is in their best interest and will act accordingly if given the chance. Elite’s are mainly concerned with preserving their power and generally stand in the way of popular sovereignty.

  3. Oops, I screwed up my pronouns in the post above. When I say “I’m sure he’s in favor of *it* in principle” I mean the concept of fair use, not necessarily reforming it.

    Permission is granted without restriction and in perpetuity to sneer at people who write so sloppily.

  4. Pyros, you may want to reread yourself. I haven’t even had a chance to watch the Lessig piece yet but your post is so condescending that you make me want to stick up for him anyway.

    Your sole real argument about the people being the real source of change is questionable. The We may have been the source of the great changes of the past, but those in power have found new ways of playing, purposely obscuring their power and placing it outside the hands of the common man. If Lessig’s argument is that change will require a certain amount of change from within, there is an argument to be made there I think. At the very least, intelligent people may disagree.

    I admit I was impressed by homilitc and abstruse, though. That’s some serious blog comment throwin’ down! Heeaw.

  5. @Pyros

    Like other posters, I haven’t looked at the lecture yet, though I have seen videos of Lessig discussing this issue elsewhere.

    Regarding your post:

    That’s great etc etc. But why do you assume the character of a populus is an exogenous component to “corruption”? You impugn Lessig’s “puritanical thinking” and his elitism. After you use “homilitic” in a sentence. If you aren’t the product of higher eduction, congratulation, I’m impressed. Most college graduates can’t use that word. But if you are [the product of higher education] wouldn’t that make you an elite as well?

    Back to “puritanical” Lessig: Lets look at your statement differently: Were the people who elected Hitler just responding to badly incentivized government/legal institutions? Would you say those inter-war Germans knew their best interests too?

    I know; I played the Hitler card. Still, the difference is one of degree. We are every bit as responsible for the absurdity of American democracy as the Germans who elected Hitler were responsible for later atrocities. They made their bed and slept in it. It’s lazy thinking to say we can’t blame ourselves for the state of our country. It’s much easier, as you demonstrate, to point at “elites” and describe our situation as something done to us.

  6. Pyros said:

    “if bad things happen to people, in this case a government shot through with corruption—then people must have brought it on themselves somehow.”

    Lessig does not make this argument. What he does say is that those who enable bad actors like the pedophile in story one share some of the responsibility.

    “his idea that society is best improved by the efforts of the elites among us is dangerous and wrong. People act according the their interests. If elites are able to reform government in any way it will be for their own benefit. Mr. Lessig’s proposed solution is for us to change our attitude about corruption. How this is to take place he doesn’t really elaborate except by hinting that technology may hold the answer.”

    Lessig does not make this argument either. Nowhere does he claim that society is best improved through the actions of elites. I think that what you perceive as elitism is simply due to the fact that the video is a power point presentation before an audience of his peers. It is not directed to a general audience.

    “The truth is that people do not need help from elites. Most of the problems our government currently experiences could be solved if the mechanisms for expanding popular power were created and implemented.”

    I think we need help from where ever we can get it from. Academic scholars have tremendous advantages over most people in both time and resources. Oh and let me guess what your idea of “expanding popular power” is. Would you be yet another Libertarian troll? Please spare us.

  7. i agree with Noen’s response to Pyros. I had some similar objections. I think it is important to note that Lessig is presenting to an audience of fellow legal academics. Of course it sounds pretentious to people not in that community. I, on the other hand, as a academic, found the argument w/r/t my role in shaping thought to be very persuasive.

    Pryos wrote (and noen quoted): “The truth is that people do not need help from elites. Most of the problems our government currently experiences could be solved if the mechanisms for expanding popular power were created and implemented.”

    I think it is telling that the second sentence is written in the passive voice. I’ll leave my critique of those sentences at that.

    I found Lessig’s lecture a very persuasive and broad discussion of the nature of corruption; particularly, as I said before, with regard to my own role and responsibilities. I encourage anyone to listen to it, but particularly academics.

  8. tmoore1081 said:

    “Like other posters, I haven’t looked at the lecture yet”

    Speak for yourself. I watched the entire video before posting. BTW, “homiletic” isn’t that big of a word.

    And I want to add a pre-apology to Pyros if it turns out that he is not “yet another Libertarian troll”. That species has so poisoned internet discussion that it is a good bet, still, I could be wrong.

    Lessig’s point is that institutional corruption like that seen in story one isn’t adequately addressed merely by punishing the offender. We need to also look at the role played by those who enabled the offender. Simply going after the bad guys will not work. Lessig’s solution is to change that dynamic. Pyros doesn’t offer a solution other than some vague prescription for more populism (read: Libertarianism).

    The charge of “elitism” is a typical neocon smear. They want to do for academia what they’ve done to the rest of the country, turn everything into shit.

  9. @Noen.

    Fair enough. But I do think “homiletic” is a big word for someone apparently deriding academics/educated folk.

  10. He’s put together the “alpha version” of his lecture on the subject and uploaded it to the net for public review and commentary

    I think this space should be useful to discuss it, but people keep talking about that other story. Stop the Off-topic, please.

    BTW, I’m from Brazil, and this subject is of my interrest. Brazil’s corruption cases are quite famous, you probably know…

  11. tmoore1081 – Yeah, you’re probably right. What I said wasn’t intended to be a slam, just a side note, nothing more.

    gdlw

    “‘ll b bsy tkng ths bks hv by hr nd dmpng thm n th trsh.”

    Tht wld b rlly slly n “ct ff yr ns t spt yr fc” knd wy. Th ntrnt rprsnts hg prdgm shft fr mny, mny ppl. vn s, thnk sh hs lgtmt bf.

  12. I dunno. I mean, admire Lessig, and I like his books. But his anti-copyright cases were all duds. And now he’s going up against something even more unassailable than copyright — corruption.

    I’d like Lessig to fight the good fight, but really, is his middle name Quixote?

  13. I think that like most people critiquing anything, we are missing the big picture here. This isnt about lawsuits won or lost, or down to the finite way that he will be tackling corruption. You will never be 100% behind someone, which is NOT the point.

    The point is, here is a man who has affected free culture and influenced more people in ways that we may never know. We do know that because of him and people like him, we can only move forward more enabled and more inspired than if they had done nothing at all.

    The fact that Larry Lessig is tackling one of the biggest issues of our day means that something positive WILL happen from it. It will inspire, enable, and hopefully empower people to go and make change. That is what he has done with Copyright laws, and that is what he, and the people that work with him will do with this new challenge.

    Larry, I wish you the best. Nothing we as a group are doing to positively affect the world will matter much if we don’t get politics turned around soon. We watch with much anticipation at what happens next.

    -JP

  14. Some of the comments here have gone away. I reget the necessity. Some of them were well-written, made legitimate points, expressed heartfelt sentiments, and had other virtues as well. All were posted in the expectation that they would be published here, and would stay here, which is the single point I most regret. Nevertheless, here and elsewhere, we are not going to be discussing the Le Guin thing.

    One commenter, DCulberson, saw instantly why the discussion had been foreclosed in its native thread: “I suspect his disabling of comments was to prevent a bunch of “Le Guin sux” comments being appended to the bottom of it.” He was quite right. Point is, the same goes for this thread, too.

    Yes, it’s frustrating. It runs contrary to natural inclinations. Believe me, I’m aware of that. I solemnly promise to never do this when I can possibly avoid it. I don’t expect it’ll come up again often. It may never come up again at all. I’d like that.

    I’ve preserved all of your comments. If you posted one but didn’t save a copy of it, drop me a note at tnh@panix.com and I’ll send you your text.

Comments are closed.