Monday, April 22, 2013

Lessig on Corruption

I almost agree with Laurence Lessig's recent TED talk, "We the People and the Republic We Must Reclaim." I like his diagnosis, though his argument has some weaknesses, and his prescription fails.
A short version of his idea is that funding for political campaigns distorts the incentives of elected officials to the detriment of serious reformers of every type. He did not give details for specific reforms he thought would solve this, though he mentioned the fair elections now act, the American anticorruption act, and the Grant and Franklin project (from Lessig's book). He also mentioned existing reforms in the states of Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, though he did not give details.
I wish I could support Lessig's diagnosis whole-heartedly, but I have some quibbles. He accuses funders of acting self-interestedly, and implicitly his analysis depends on the attitudes and beliefs of funders differing systematically from the public in general. His first accusation seems rhetorically sound, since it appeals to the common sentiment against greedy wealthy people. But unfortunately, political scientists have done empirical research that shows that people do not generally follow strict self-interest when voting. We can generalize voting behavior better by saying that people generally identify with some group and vote as a block. Unless we convince ourselves that rich people vote as a single block and adopt policies that are at odds with general opinion, it's not clear that funding has the effect Lessig thinks it does. In other words, maybe George Soros balances out the Koch brothers, and "fixing" funding won't fix policy.
According to Bryan Caplan, corruption happens "on the margin" of policy. I think that means that, if legislators face a range of policy alternatives, some that would harm special interests in favor of public interests, some that ignore public interests for the sake of special interests, and others that favor special interests while not obviously harming the public, lobbying will favor the last category. While this is less than ideal, it means that grossly unpopular policies will not be chosen often. If we believe Caplan, bad policies have more to do with popular biases than with corrupt elections. In effect, Caplan's claims make funding reform a side issue, not the central issue that Lessig thinks it is.
I was disappointed that Lessig spent so much time trying to convince us there is a problem, and so little convincing us that a solution exists. I think I'd have found his talk much more convincing if he'd spent more time describing the proposals he mentioned, and especially discussing the effects of the existing examples of state level reforms. I'm an empiricist, so there's not much I like better than a working model.
Lessig tried to "think outside the box" but didn't go far outside. The federal government is 18th century technology. Lessig wants to patch a bug. I think we might want to consider an upgrade. Government is the phone company before deregulation. Even if we were able to get the incentives right, information problems and coordination problems remain. The 20th century mania for mass production motivated the centralization of power and control. I hope that the 21st century will embrace the Internet and a new federalism, returning to the discarded idea that states should be "laboratories of democracy" instead of "one size fits all." The U.S. can't have two foreign policies or two military budgets, but many policies that have been "federalized" need not stay that way. If we really cared about "getting it right" we would allow more experimentation.
Instead of giving voters vouchers to increase their influence over primaries and advertising, why not reduce the power of legislators? NH has 400 legislators, who can afford to bribe them all?
But none of these reforms is likely to be considered. Politics is frustrating because if you lose you have mostly wasted your time. I need to figure out a way to change the world that actually works, where effort gets paid by results.

No comments: