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It's the Corruption, Stupid

Lawrence Lessig on his new job, his latest cause, and why reforming Washington begins outside the Beltway.

| Sat Feb. 7, 2009 3:09 PM EST

MJ: You said that Obama has a lot of different problems he has to deal with, but let's say it's April or May and Congress has decided, well, maybe we should address this corruption issue. Do you see yourself in the role of going to Washington and testifying and talking to members of Congress about this issue?

LL: If I were asked to testify about it, I would of course testify, but I don't actually think that there's a lot of progress to be made walking around Washington thinking about this issue. That's not the target of my work. There's been 100 years of people thinking about how to reform Washington, and some great work has been done on it, but a lot of this has to be done by people who don't have an interest in going to Washington, who don't have an interest in becoming part of the system, but instead just want to make the system function. That's where I think I would come into it.

MJ: You mentioned in one of your recent talks that 68 or 69 percent of Americans support some form of public financing. But the old criticism of that is that while people tend to support process reforms, they don't tend to get excited about them.

LL: That's been the historical experience over the past 40 years, but process reforms in our history have been quite important moments of constitutional change. The Watergate changes were a set of process reforms. The challenge is, how do you phrase issues so that people begin to recognize that the issue that they're most concerned about—whether it's global warming, or health care, or safety in the workplace, or safe foods for their kids to eat—is at base also an issue about the kind of corruption that I am focused on. We're thinking, how do you get people to have a refrain in their head: "It's the money, stupid." That's the constant single thread that links these problems that people look at, and at a certain point, get people to recognize they're just going to have to do something about this underlying problem. It's hard. I just don't accept the idea it's impossible, which is what people typically infer from the common wisdom about process reform. Reform is possible, especially here, especially because so many people are so deeply convinced about the underlying predicate for that reform, namely that the system is corrupt.

MJ: You've been saying that it's not just government that faces these corruption issues. It's doctors, scientists, lawyers, journalists as well. So even if you do fix this on a governmental level, how can you address the corruption within the professions?

LL: That's the purpose of this five-year project that I've launched at the ethics center at the Harvard Kennedy School. The strategy is first to make the similar problem across these domains visible, so that people can begin to see something they're familiar with is actually similar to a problem that's existing in science or in journalism or in government. So you can begin to see a common problem, a common thread, and then recognize very plainly the costs that this common problem poses across a whole series of institutions as a way to build a resolve to address it.

Now, I'm not so naive as to think that we're going to build overnight the will to resist it across the domains. It's not a black-and-white problem; it's largely a problem of degree. What we've seen happen since the mid-1980s is a slow shift to a kind of norm or ethic that accepted that whatever private return you can extract, it's okay for you and okay for the system to encourage that. And it would be enormously beneficial even just to turn that back four or five notches in the other direction, so more and more people find moments or opportunities in their professional experience and private life to resist that dynamic.

I don't think someone's going to write a book and it's going to change the world, but I do think that if we start a conversation that hundreds, thousands of people begin to participate in to focus on this problem, that we can begin to move the dial back the other way. At least that's the hope, because I don't see any other way of doing it.

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