Criticism of the General Idea

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Criticism of the General Idea

Failure to Distinguish Between "Corruption" and "Influence"

Lessig explains that he's not really interested in the exciting subject of corruption as much as in the more pedestrian notion of influence, and has apparently chosen to use the former word because it's more electric than the latter. So how does one begin to critique a work that flies a false flag, by what it says it is or by what it really is?

In our capitalist economy, money flows all over the place, and politics is no exception. Many people find it possible to make excellent livings critiquing capitalism, such as Ralph Nader, a multi-millionaire who's never held a job outside of his own non-profit corporation. Does this mean Nader is corrupt? Are we to assume that Nader is influenced by Cisco because he holds their stock?

Jesse Unruh, a former speaker of the California House and a lion of politics, famously said of lobbyists: "if you can't take their money, drink their whiskey, [sleep with] their women and still look the bastards in the eye and vote against them, you don't belong [in the legislature]."

Instead of complaining about the money in politics, we should be cultivating Unruh-like spines in our elected officials. All the study of influence will do is create a massive confusion of correlation and causation.

Elected officials are supposed to be influenced by their constituents and others affected by their legislation. To insist that they not be is to deny one of the fundamental assumptions on which representative government is founded.

"Corruption" vague, maybe worse

I think life is the pursuit of self interest and that I "corruptly" contravene an applicable rule or convention only when and because I perceive that to adhere or go along would be an inferior wager. I believe that a system that lacks transparency, policing and/or punishment(even if the punishment is just shaming contingent on exposure resulting from transparency) itself fosters corruption. If I believe the system enables me to misbehave secretly at little or no risk, then I'm very likely to misbehave. Had I been raised by puritans, maybe I wouldn't, but systems ought not to rely on the uniformly successful puritanical socialization of its operators/members. Such a system inherently and in itself deserves to be called "corrupt," whether it's one that enforces total compliance through totalitarianism, or one that indulges scofflawism (e.g. a handicapped parking policy that entailed no policing or punishment of unauthorized parking). So at least sometimes we should be addressing the system rather than individuals who misbehave and the so-called values enabling them to do so ("liberal" and "conservative" seem to be about just this choice of focus). What's more, given how hugely interwoven and complicated our economies and societies are, wagerers cannot estimate their true odds reliably and/or without assuming good faith of a lot people and institutions. A certain frequency of corrupt behavior must result simply from miscalculation and misplaced distrust. So in diagnosing corruption, I think my rule of thumb and emphasis would be to look at the system. That's consistent with the General Idea, I think, but I worry "corruption" is a weak orienter to its objective and agenda, and might even fetter thoughts about how to pursue it. I would not want to call "corrupt" the coal miners under Thatcher who campaigned against the closure of unprofitable mines, for example, who I suspect rightly saw what was in it for them, although I do suspect their closure per se was in the national public interest, like I suppose a lot of people now and then. I might reach instead for "special interest," by which I think we tend to insinuate a kind of corruption about organized activity. From there the common conclusion lately seems to be that indeed it's the organizers behavior or their influence that needs constraining. I think it's important keep our minds open to the prospect of macroeconomic remedies, for instance establishing a tradition or legal guarantee of worker retraining, in light of which the prospect of downsizings and bankruptcies might not feel so dire to the interested parties.

Corruption, Transparency and Social Movements

The word corruption works for me. We aren't always battling Evil Incarnate, sometimes we are just reframing an issue or finding ways to recalibrate a system so that it works closer to the way we want. My assumptions are that social movements and transparency are essential to getting the system to work as well as it can. We're getting more transparency -- via watchdog organizations on the internet -- but it's less and less noticeable due to a combination of shrinking leisure time and the information deluge. Social movements served us in the past by drawing attention, educating people about complex issues, setting actionable goals and demands, collectively thinking up good tactics, maintaining sustained interest and escalating action until goals were met, and protecting people from intimidation or punishment for being dissenters. Social movements also served us in the past by linking up "single issues" to help cope with the deluge problem -- working together in coalitions. I think social movements are still necessary. For example, the Google Books settlement -- quite likely a couple of major US universities will step forward and support the settlement in exchange for becoming gatekeepers over the promised and valuable research corpus, and it will take a concerted action to reframe the issue so that the potential conflict of interest and poor consequences for higher ed (let along the whole public) become apparent in a broad way. My way of fighting corruption would be to use technology and the advances of the information age to strengthen the aspects of social movements that make them successful. And the 30-hour work week couldn't hurt either!

I should have emphasized social movements more -- we need demands, we need to be on the offensive. I don't think we have failed to address climate change because of influence peddling, I think it is because there is no mass movement with the right kind of leadership to get behind, with some clear, winnable goals. Americans are practical -- if we aren't likely to win, well then, we're busy doing other things. It seems to me that politics is fundamentally a fight about how to apportion limited resources to address problems. Just taking away the gravy train is not going to change the behavior of Congress people who can still be influenced, attacked, controlled by other means. I don't think I believe that we can just remove something (whatever that is, money, lobbying, etc) and then independent deliberation will happen and Reason will win. I think democracy is about contending forces, and right now we have a dearth of dissenting leadership. The place I get stuck is that most of the issues seem so complex I need a couple hours with a college professor on each one - climate change, peace and reconciliation in Iraq, the economic crisis, national healthcare. Why don't we have a flourishing and mutually beneficial alliance between the educated people who understand the issues, and the activists with the skills and inclination to lead political movements?

Lee Hamilton (R-Indiana) spoke some years back at a forum on government secrecy and he said a lot of lovely things about holding government officials accountable. That's what I mean about transparency -- it isn't enough for me to know (or for a lot of us individually to know) that politician X did something shady. There has to be accountability, consequences. The consequences would be tactical, and it will take strong social movements with great leaders to figure out good tactics and organize enough social weight behind them to make them meaningful.

Money is not really the problem

Gifts in kind can constitute bribery as much as gifts of money or cash. Bribery is its own problem, not a money problem; and what's problematic is that it enables undue influence. Money for campaign advertising might be said to enable undue influence, but more directly it's broadcasting that enables undue influence. If speaking at normal volume were not the same under law as speaking through a megaphone, and if speaking to your friend about shampoo were not the same as a video recording of it that plays on 25 million TV sets during the Superbowl, we wouldn't be blaming money. The problematic consequence is that though self-evidently every citizen has a voice, some get a much wider say and hearing, and so we assess the merit of ideas by another metric than by success through propagation. But instead of monetary success entitling wider say, in a parallel universe it might be success in football or music and still the result would be differ from a simple democracy that is egalitarian from the grass roots up. (Arguably the bias toward economic success is a salubrious one to have, which suppose was part of the case for endowing only wealthy landholders with the right to vote initially.)