Lessig's One Way Forward

By Cory Doctorow

Lawrence Lessig's new ebook One Way Forward is one of the most exciting documents I've read since I first found The Federalist Papers. One Way Forward is more of a long pamphlet than a book. It's tempting to call it a "manifesto," except that it's so darned reasonable, and that's not a word that comes readily to mind when one hears "manifesto."

At the core of Lessig's reasonable manifesto is the corrupting influence of money in politics, a corruption that predates the notorious Citizens United Supreme Court case. Lessig ascribes to this corruption the outrage that mobilizes both Occupy and the Tea Party, and he believes that the corruption can't be ended until both the left and right realize that though they don't have a common goal, they do share a common enemy, and unite to defeat it.

To this end, Lessig has a series of extremely practical suggestions, legislative proposals that, individually, strike at the root of the corruption, and, collectively, could kill it. Most of these don't require any kind of constitutional amendment. All are designed to be passed through the nonpartisan action of activists of all political stripes, working together on ideals that neither should find fundamentally objectionable.

Indeed, the steps laid out in One Way Forward remind of nothing so much as Creative Commons, in that they constitute a set of principles and actions that we can undertake individually, but which grows into a movement the more of us join in, and that are designed to reside in a sweet spot that does not violate any dogma or ideology. This is Lessig's special gift, the ability to design movements around legal and social principles that use a series of attainable, independent goals to build towards larger, more powerful solutions.

A mere 62 pages, plus a few more pages of model legislative language and end-notes, One Way Forward is an hour's read and a lifetime's work. If you want to get a sense of what this is all about, visit TheAntiCorruptionPledge.org (a pledge for civilians and politicians alike to take against corruption), AmericansElect.org (a project to put a third, reform-oriented candidate on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, with the goal of making reform into a national issue in the 2014 election); and CallAConvention.org, a dress-rehearsal for a series of citizens' constitutional amendment conventions that may some day change Citizens United forever. For a broader outline, see Lessig's own oneway.lessig.org, and the organization he founded, RootStrikers.

We must first build a system to fund campaigns in which all of us, or at least the vast majority of us, become the effective funders. Not through a system that forces one side to subsidize the speech of the other, or that empowers Washington bureaucrats to decide how much money each side has to run its campaigns. That’s the awful connotation that typically comes with the term “publicly funded elections,” and it’s not what I mean here.

Instead, through a system that incentivizes candidates to raise campaign funds from all of us, in small dollar chunks, and that effectively spreads its influence to all of us. Here’s just one example: Imagine a system that rebated the first $50 of tax revenue paid by each of us, in the form of a voucher—call it a “democracy voucher.”39 Voters could allocate that voucher (or any part of it) to any candidate for Congress who agrees to fund his or her campaign only with “democracy vouchers” and contributions from citizens of up to $100 per election. Vouchers not used would get returned to the political party of the voter—or, if the voter is an independent or chooses differently, to some other democracy-supporting fund. At $50 per voter, this system would put at least $7 billion into elections each year, more than three times the total raised in congressional elections in 2010.

Call this the Grant and Franklin Project. As a system, it would easily and adequately fund congressional elections. But it would be us, not the you-pick-your-fraction-of-the- top-1-percent of Americans, who would be funding these elections. And, sure, the money to fund this system would be “the public’s”—in the sense that the Treasury would write the checks to back the democracy vouchers. But as with everything in the Treasury, the Treasury got this bit of the “public” from us first. This system just rebates what the people have given the government, in a form that allows the People to make Congress responsive to them.

One Way Forward

Published 6:41 am Tue, Feb 21, 2012

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

56 Responses to “Lessig's One Way Forward

  1. steve white says:

    lessig argue your point, don’t say its the only way

    • yoshua says:

      He calls it “one way,” not “only way.”

      • steve white says:

         its clear from his root striker stuff he only thinks there is one way forward his way.

        • lessig says:

          What’s “clear” is that I’ve identified things that I don’t think will work. But I’ve never said (because it would be absurd to say) that there is “only one way” forward. Sorry if the title suggests otherwise (and I agree it might suggest otherwise) but as I say in the book: 

          “The aim of this short book is to point. It is to offer one way forward.”  

          • GuyInMilwaukee says:

            Thank you for the clarification. It’s good to have a strong title… But it can be misinterpreted as it obviously has been. Great topic and I look forward to your ideas.

          • steve white says:

            his message for a long time has been the his way is the only way in regard to #rootstriker , as if all campaigns don’t already battle the issue of money in poltics

          • Stephen Rice says:

            @ GuyInMilwaukee : To be honest, it kinda sounds like steve white has disagreed with lessig for longer than just one book title.

            I don’t think there’s a collection of words that people who disagree with you can’t disagree with.

        • IndianJones says:

          Not to mention the cooptation of the other root-strikers who identify “the corruption” as being a little deeper.

          Are their perspectives addressed in the book?

        • James Salsman says:

          There are several ways forward (to public campaign finance, on which several vital reforms are blocked) including more than a dozen proposed constitutional amendments you can read about at http://j.mp/constamends — As you can see from the details of each, Lessig’s is superior to the rest. And while it isn’t technically necessary to have a constitutional amendment to get good public campaign financing, there are many reasons that both attempting and achieving an amendment to the Constitution would be superior to the alternative, including the likelihood of meaningful success of any kind and the permanence and effectiveness if successful.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      lessig argue your point, don’t say its the only way

      You have made irony.

  2. greebo says:

    Haven’t read the manifesto yet, but if that snippet is a sample of his thinking, then no, he hasn’t thought this through anywhere near enough. A large number of Americans are too poor to pay taxes, and/or are prevented from voting through a variety of disenfranchising strategies. So we’ll end up replacing one special interest group (multi-millionaires) with another special interest group (the upper middle classes). 
    Until you come up with a system that provides everyone with equal access to the political system, what you have is still a plutocracy, not a democracy.

    • lessig says:

      Agreed, Greebo. And the voucher that I describe does go to every voter, regardless of income. I was only making the point that (practically) every voter, regardless of income, sends at least $50 to the federal treasury. 

    • James Salsman says:

      Greebo, it would still have an enormously positive effect on both the poor and middle class because the tax reforms described in e.g. http://j.mp/taxplain and http://j.mp/imfoops are being blocked by lobbyists for the ultra-rich and corporations because Congress is too dependent on their fundraising.

      “Public campaign finance is the only way to get lobbying money out of Congress and restore its integrity. Congresspeople have to spend 85% of their time fundraising, up from 70% before Citizens United v. FEC because the candidate spending the most money wins 94% of the time. So please ask your CEO, [publisher,] and board to support appropriating e.g. $10 million campaign funds to the top two contenders six months before federal elections. The resulting campaign advertisements will directly benefit your company and indirectly benefit everyone.” — 

      Please see also the more detailed discussion at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reference_desk/Archives/Humanities/2012_January_19#Best_way_to_get_lobbying_money_out_of_Congress.3F

  3. GuyInMilwaukee says:

    I agree the “only way” title rings sour… But for me this is the number one issue that should be fought by thoughtful people. Nothing will change until we get the monied influence out of the elections. This whole experience could fail without that kind of change. The lie that is Citizens United has to be must be brought into the light.

  4. GuyInMilwaukee says:

    I like the push for a constitutional amendment. Think big on big issues.

  5. Chesterfield says:

    I’d like to see campaigns and politicians funded only by individuals. No lobbying by corporations, unions, churches, or any other special interest groups. The chances of this happening are effectively zero.

    • VicqRuiz says:

      The reason we have PAC’s raising money in the nine figures is precisely because individual gifts are strictly limited by law.  Do you want to reverse that?

  6. coffee100 says:

    There is no doubt that one of the great moments in American History would take place on the day the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street recognized that as Americans, they share each other’s vision strongly enough to set aside their differences and put right what is wrong in this country.

    The echoes from the joyous shouts that went up on that day would ring in the legislatures of this nation for a hundred years.   That first handshake would be no less momentous than the one that cast a shadow across the tracks at Promontory Summit.

  7. VicqRuiz says:

    There are some good ideas here, but any proposed change in election financing has to somehow offset the huge advantages of incumbency.  Couple Lessig’s ideas with term limits and I’m right there.

  8. Horn55 says:

    Is it available for purchase as a DRM-free ePub download?  I couldn’t tell from the site.

    • Horn55 says:

        Answering myself, on 2/15 Mr. Lessiq tweeted that Byliner would be turning off DRM within a day.  But I don’t know where to buy a DRM-Free ePub of it.  Is it on Apple? Surely not Amazon and doesn’t B&N have their own format?  It seems like those are the choices on Byliner.

  9. piminnowcheez says:

    Truly, this comment thread is a study in the psychology of online argument.

    “I haven’t read the book yet, but here’s why it’s wrong…”

    “Although there are multiple ways to parse the title of this book, I choose the interpretation that allows me to assume the author is an asshole.”

  10. It’s great when book reviews review in the context of other works. So if I’ve already read (and loved) “Republic Lost”, is there anything new here for me?

  11. I was on board until Americans Elect got mentioned. Last thing we need is another “centrist” candidate.

  12. hypersomniac says:

    Add Jeffrey D. Clements’ ‘Corporations Are Not People’ and David Graeber’s ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years’ as companion pieces.

  13. Adam S. says:

    I don’t think any representative form of government can be kept from becoming corrupt. We’re going to have to move to direct democracy.

    • Ito Kagehisa says:

      Read some of the ancient Greeks who lived in a time when direct democracy wasn’t a fairy story.  It seems that a successful nation usually breeds a generation of slackers who believe themselves entitled to vote any amount of largesse to themselves from the public coffers, causing the state to go broke, at which time the same people vote in a tyrant “to set things right”.  These tendencies do not appear to have gone away since Plato’s time.  The representative form of government is an attempt to deal with the reality of the Mobbe, as the founders called it, or herd mentality as it’s sometimes called today.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Read some of the ancient Greeks who lived in a time when direct democracy wasn’t a fairy story.

        Greek democracy was for a tiny number of upper-class men. And those who were voted into office had a nasty habit of killing their predecessors out of spite. Greece’s golden age of democracy was about as free and fair as North Korea.

  14. Justin Higinbotham says:

    Having just read the book (yes, I shelled out the $1.99 on a hunch that it would be worth my time), these comments are hilarious.  Lessig explicitly states that his way is not the only way, but merely one way, forward.  This first draft is DRM and $1.99, but a second edition will come out hopefully soon on a Creative Commons License.  Far from shifting moneyed-influence from the fraction of 1 percent to the upper-middle class, he calls for a rather ingenious and voluntary incentive structure to get candidates to forswear large donations in favor of a huge pool of money generated by $50 vouchers from every tax-payer. 

    The book is a very clear and thoughtful discussion of current politics in this country, and more importantly, about the incentives that lead politicians to sell themselves to the highest bidder.  Lessig spends a great deal of time discussing America’s immense diversity (something that he values) in terms of political viewpoints.  I would encourage Boing Boing readers to actually read the book (or if you don’t want to buy it, see if you can get it from a library).  It is a good addition to an important conversation, something that nearly every comment posted so far has utterly failed to grasp.

  15. Larry Rosenthal says:

    where can i find an online free copy..cc id assume. i agree that the money must be removed from the election process… and a tax based system is fine by me…id also desire the lost 4th tribe/estate… to be funded the same way…. yes. kickstart pbs or npr… let the “fact” meters judge the information reported..and allow for elected editorial groups of checks and balances. “Entrepreneurial journalism” as spouted by Jarvis and others will only bring us more “gossip entertainment culture” and do to journalism what has happened to legal/ medical services . More of what the “people” want.. and less of what they need…. the same malady that Government is now affected by and thats targeted by these writings….

    wheres my “free” cc copy?;)   democracy unlike 100 million dollar scifi movies on the pirate bay it seems ..does have a cost.

    • Evan McMillan says:

      And that cost is a whopping $1.99!  You can purchase a copy here: 

      • Larry Rosenthal says:

        plus the 400 dollar ipad device made in china by 2.00 hr foxconn workers who will be making more than any “non coding”  hrly soon enough;)  whopping.

        Nooks. 79.00

        PS. I coudnt find a pirate copy pdf via emule- darn-… i guess not all “content” wants to be free. only DC/Marvel movies;)

        • Kevin Pierce says:

          I asked Lessig, “What if I don’t have an Apple, Amazon or B&N e-book reader?    Is there any other way to read One Way Forward?”

          His reply: “If you get it on Kindle, Kindle has free readers for all platforms.”

          So now what’s stopping you, the $1.99?

  16. piminnowcheez says:

    I hope an off-topic comment can be forgiven here, but I am confused about something: I have left a total of 3 comments in this thread (and now four).  A while ago, I came back and found just two, not including this one.  And now,  I see only one, not including this one.  What’s going on?  Is there some self-pruning feature of the Boingboing comments that I have failed to grok?

  17. simonbarsinister says:

    The backlash against this from every powerful organization and person with money and influence will make everything that has come before look like a warm-up. This will be perceived as a direct attack on the existing power structure (as it is) and the response will be drastic. If this happens it will shut down the revolving door between Congress and K-Street. It will be painted as “Lessig wants you to pay a TAX that is given to politicians to pay for their election campaigns.” It doesn’t matter if that is a perversion of the facts, there will be BILLIONS of dollars behind this message and just the 99% of the rest of us with a tiny fraction of the money arguing the merits of this.

    It’s not going to be easy.

    I’m in.

    • James Salsman says:

      The big media companies stand to benefit quite a bit from public campaign financing due to the ad revenue alone. While there are a lot of special interests which will be against it, in total any given person or corporation stands to benefit far more from all the many reforms which will follow from passage than what they will lose in their particular interest.  For example, if you’re a Fortune 500 corporation, why would you care if you lost your tax haven if all your competitors do, too, and you get the growth rates of the 1950s in return, the reduced expenses of single payer health care, etc?

  18. Horn55 says:

    http://youtu.be/Xz3RdkO824A Lessig’s TEDx San Antonio talk Citizens: The Need and the Requirements

  19. Bradley Hall says:

    I’m only 1/3 of the way through the book (I must be a slower reader than Cory), but so far I’m loving it. He’s mentioning two groups, the Tea Party and the Occupiers, knowing he’s going to upset both groups for being compared to the other. I haven’t gotten to the $50 campaign finance section, but I love the idea.

  20. Ito Kagehisa says:

    “Lessig ascribes to this corruption the outrage that mobilizes both Occupy and the Tea Party, and he believes that the corruption can’t be ended until both the left and right realize that though they don’t have a common goal, they do share a common enemy, and unite to defeat it.”

    Hear hear!

    This is why I sometimes end up defending the Teabaggers in BoingBoing threads.  Self-congratulatory tea-party-mocking circle-jerks by self-appointed “progressives” ignore the fact that the Tea Partiers know something is wrong and are trying to do something about it.  Sure, they are ineffective and largely ignorant, but you haven’t yet been able to cure that by making fun of them.  It would be more productive to reach out to them, since they want to make things better. There is an energy there that could be harnessed for change.

    Edit: too many hyphens in this post.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Self-congratulatory tea-party-mocking circle-jerks by self-appointed “progressives” ignore the fact that the Tea Partiers know something is wrong and are trying to do something about it.

      You know who else knew something was wrong and tried to do something about it?

  21. JPhilipp says:

    Is this somewhere available as shareable Creative Commons work? I already read through the terrific book Republic, Lost, but have trouble finding the perfect link to share with others (next to pointing to an Amazon book, but buying it sort of assumes you’ve at least somewhat bought his point or consider it worth reflecting on, and plan to invest days to digest it). I don’t mind paying, but I know for easy sharing, a free-er version somewhere would spread the message further, which I’m sure is in Lessig’s interest.

  22. soufron says:

    Well, there are many other ways that don’t require market-oriented solutions. French elections use a double-cap system: elections are paid by the State as long as you register 5% of the votes during the first turn, and it can only reach a maximum of 22 millions. It doesn’t only mean that candidates would not be refunded for what they would spend above that cap, it means that they are forbidden to spend more that this! And they can’t accept donations or free participations either! 
    All in all, do you really think it’s a good thing to spend 7 billions on election marketing? Distributing it through vouchers seems to me like a bad patch on a bloody wound. 

  23. Horn55 says:

    Media Lab Conversations Series: Lawrence Lessig, “One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing a Republic”    90 minutes of Lessig on his new work

  24. thaddeusphoenix says:

    I think at the core, the ‘one’ way is more of the fact that people support all types of movements. Maybe it should have been titled the +1 way ;-)

  25. minnitman says:

    not to be a negative Nellie, but the “insider trading” that appears to be on its way to NOT being banned is pretty telling about types of corruption which few knew existed.   Upon realizing, it’s pretty easy to infer that getting elected is like hitting the PowerBall.  I hate being a cynic.  But, campaign funding is just one a many corruption conduits.   Reverse-patronage like large consulting fees to family members, internships for politicians’ kids, board memberships for whomever, etc., tell me that no matter how rotten you think things are, they a lot more rotten than you thought.  I’ve never been a big campaign finance reform believer – for practical and constitutional reasons – but I do certainly believe it is a totally legitimate concern.  It’s just not the only one, or necessarily the most important one.   

    In fact, I think the focus on campaign funding CAN be a big mistake in this sense: to the extent that campaign funding matters, it’s almost never the case that A won because A spent twice (4x, 8x) what B spent, but rather because B could only spend half of what B needed to spend to be competitive.   

    The other matter is whether funding campaigns needs to reflect broad support – lots of donors.  If it does, fundraising is ALWAYS going to be politicians’ real job.   The post-Watergate “reforms” are widely agreed to have caused the incessant dialing-for-dollars part of the job to grow out-of-control.  IIRC, Hobbes dealt with this issue 400 years ago in discussing how the more diffuse political power gets, the more complicated the corruption becomes.  One donor=one big favor.  Lots of donors=lots of big favors.  (Paraphrasing).

  26. It sounds like a great idea to get money out of politics.  Can we find a way to get politics out of our lives?  In this 21st Century, can’t we find something that works?  This internet is a very cool communication tool.  Though I’ve felt OWS-Empire’s-Territory broiling inside of us for years, with people in all of my travels being sick and tired of being regulated to death.  It would be great to have a real life where we can laugh, Rock and Roll and dance, without having all of our currant day distractions.  Why should we settle for less?