America, Compromised: Lawrence Lessig explains corruption in words small enough for the Supreme Court to understand
Lawrence Lessig was once best-known as the special master in the Microsoft Antitrust Case, then he was best known as the co-founder of Creative Commons, then as a fire-breathing corruption fighter: in America, Compromised, a long essay (or short nonfiction book), Lessig proposes as lucid and devastating a theory of corruption as you'll ever find, a theory whose explanatory power makes today's terrifying news cycle make sense -- and a theory that demands action.
For decades, America has been undoing the great work of history's anti-corruption movements, allowing the wealthy to intervene directly in politics, creating political outcomes that increase their wealth -- lather, rinse repeat.
The courts and their ideological backers -- the Chicago School economists who used shitty math to prove that greed is good and that corruption consists solely of direct quid-pro-quo bribery -- have served as enablers and even cheerleaders for this new Gilded Age, celebrating anonymous political cash contributions as a form of speech protected under the First Amendment and arguing that the Framers of the Constitution would have agreed wholeheartedly with them.
Lessig walks a fine line between academic and activist as he rebuts this argument, drawing on the research produced by the fellows at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, an interdisciplinary corruption-study center he founded at Harvard and then turning to the rhetoric that made him such an inspirational figure in the Free Culture movement.
Lessig lays out the historic case for the Framers' understanding of corruption as a systemic phenomenon, in which the structure of institutions demand that even the best, most moral people sacrifice their principles to thrive (or just survive) -- a conception at long odds with the Chicago School orthodoxy and the think tanks and ruling elites that back it.
From this historic perspective, Lessig painstakingly builds up an argument about how inequality has fueled corruption, which has fueled inequality -- and how the bankrupt ideology of the Chicago School corrupted every institution, forcing each of us to make one tiny compromise after another, until we arrive at the present moment.
Lessig's use of case-studies alternated with broad statistical and political analysis flips back and forth from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, from individuals and institutions to the whole society and back again, in a story that is as compelling as it is infuriating.
Lessig is well-known for having formulated the "four forces" theory of social change: that the world is moved by markets (what is profitable), norms (what is considered ethical), code (what is technically possible) and laws (what is legal). In his final section, he presents a set of prescriptions touching on all four factors, from the discussions we need to have with one another about these issues (norms) to the tools that would help us hold the powerful to account (code) to the policies that would reverse the damage (laws) to the kinds of businesses and nonprofits that could help us make a better world (markets). In a moment when the monopolism of Big Tech is replicating itself in every sector from energy to aviation to prisons to finance, these prescriptions are both reasonable and compelling.
This is a short book, but it's full of very big ideas. Lessig's dual identities of "scholar" and "activist" have never been so perfectly merged.
America, Compromised [Lawrence Lessig/University of Chicago]
(Image: Joi Ito, CC-BY)
Designed by Jon Gray and available for pre-order next week (ISBN: 9780441007462): Gibson loves it.
Boing Boing pal Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Team Human, is a fiery, inspiring, and ultimately optimistic call for us to fight against the divisive, commodifying agenda built into our technology, reassert what it really means to be human, and then, as Timothy Leary urged, “find the others.” Above, watch Doug lay it all out in […]
A roundup from Lithub of the best cover art on books from this year, with commentary. There’s a strong trend toward in-camera or handmade graphics and natural media, with computers only showing up to do things that you don’t need computers to do. I think this is a good thing, but it inspires me to […]
For the true audio enthusiast, there’s a lot of difference between putting on some songs “for background music” and a true listening experience. For the latter, there’s nothing like a pair of sturdy headphones and the powerful speakers that come with them. And the wireless variety doesn’t get much more powerful than the TREBLAB Z2 […]
Digital or analog, there’s a path of least resistance for any project. Finding that path is what the Agile methodology is all about, which is why proficiency in it is a must for any project management position – and the paycheck that comes with it. And the quickest path to learning Agile? The Agile Project […]
Everybody’s flown a paper airplane. But what if you could fly on a paper airplane? Until we invent shrink-ray technology, the PowerUp X FPV Video Paper Airplane Kit will have to do – but it’s as fun as that sounds and more. The original version of this creative toy added drone tech to the old, […]