Utne Reader Visionaries Special Project: An Interview with Lawrence Lessig

by Keith Goetzman
Online Exclusive: November-December 2008
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Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, one of Utne Reader's visionaries, spoke on September 11, 2008, with Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman about his government reform organization Change Congress.

Why did you suddenly shift your focus from copyright law to government reform and form the organization Change Congress?

I came to a point when I working in copyright law where I recognized that the reason the issues turned out to be so difficult to resolve was largely because of the enormous influence that special interests had in the debate.

It was an obvious point, but then I began to realize how other critical public policy issues—global warming being the one that was most dramatic to me—were also directly injured by exactly the same dynamic of special interests influencing campaigns through contributions, and thereby making it impossible to get something done that would be progress.

So what I resolved was that we weren’t going to make progress on these issues until we found a way to deal with this first problem of the way Congress was being distorted by money, and that’s what made me shift.

Basically, you’ve gone meta on the issue.

Yeah, although if it’s meta, then we’re going to fail. We’ve got meta in the way we think about it, but the whole strategy here has got to get people to see how their particular issue, the thing that gets them angry, is also a product of the dynamic that we’re worried about. If we can get enough people to recognize that and shift some of their effort toward this more fundamental problem, I think we can make some progress on it.

Basically, Change Congress is trying to reduce the influence of PACs and lobbyists, right?

Well, what Change Congress is trying to do first is to bring people into reform movement around Congress, and so we’ve put out a number of planks that people can grab onto as their view about the kind of change that’s needed.

So one of the planks is to eliminate lobbyist and PAC money; one of them is to fundamentally reform earmarks; one of them is to support public funding; and one is them is about transparency. The idea is, if you believe in reform, you tell us which is important to you, and we want to begin a debate about which of these, or which mix of  these, would actually be a solution.

It’s intended to be bipartisan, so these issues are actually selected because they’re the kind of reform being suggested by both Democrats and Republicans. But we haven’t taken one as the solution that we would put forward.

How optimistic are you about accomplishing the sort of change you’re pushing for with Change for Congress?

Well, nothing is going to happen in the next cycle, or the next two cycles, and there’s no illusion that it’s going to take a pretty big movement, and we’re nowhere close to having that movement right now.

You’re talking about presidential election cycles, or congressional ones?

Congressional election cycles. One of the biggest problems we have is that politics in America has been reduced to a presidential cycle. People think only about the president. But even if you got the most committed reformer president, that’s only a tenth of the solution, because that president still has to deal with Congress, and Congress is still the same Congress. So it’s going to take a number of cycles.

We’ve been working very hard to figure out what the strategy is that makes this issue increasingly salient and important, and I’m pretty excited about the strategy. My more fundamental view about it is, even if I thought we weren’t going to succeed, I think failing is actually a pretty important part of the ultimate process of getting things done.

Trying to build a movement and seeing that movement stopped by those who don’t want to support change might be the first step necessary to getting the next movement going that’s much more strongly supported.

And if you believe as I do that we we’re not going to be able to solve any of the critical public policy problems that we face, from really important issues like global warming to somewhat esoteric issues like copyright issues, and everything in between—we’re not going to solve any of those until we solve this more fundamental problem.

So we don’t really have a choice—this is the issue we’ve got to fix, and whether or not you believe you’re going to succeed ultimately, I think there’s a moral obligation to try to do something about it.

Do you think there’s a hunger for reform in the air right now?

Yeah, and unfortunately I don’t think either party is satisfying it. One of most important dynamics of the hunger is that there’s a revulsion for the way ordinary politics function.

And part of the Change Congress movement ultimately is to consciously identify ourselves as a citizen movement—meaning people who explicitly say they don’t want to be a politician, they’re not in it to become a congressperson or a senator or the president of the United States—in fact, they commit to this is not the future they want.

Instead, what they’re trying to do is ask average citizens, from the outside, to effect change in the way the government works. I think tying into a credible position about having no self-interest is going to be an essential part of getting over the cynicism that defines people’s relationship with politics right now.

Should you accomplish what you want to with Change Congress, would you consider returning to some of these copyright issues you’ve previously worked on?

I probably would return in the sense of coming back to celebrate our success, because I think if we fix the Congress problem, then a lot of these issues that I was working on aren’t really hard public policy questions, but if you could just get a Congress that could think about things freely or independently, I think they’d get the right answer.

So it’s a pretty hopeful picture to imagine fixing the Congress problem, but if we create a movement to fix that, then I think we should move on to something like cancer or something really impossibly difficult.


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