An Issue Campaign Passing as Intellectual Inquiry

I was pleased when I learned that Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig had asked to come speak to us at Cato. Julian Sanchez has done a terrific job of capturing some of the subjects highlighted by his visit last week. Lessig is very keen on public financing of elections. In the end, however, Lessig’s visit reminded me of a birthday party I attended many years ago – something had been wrong with the cream sauce on the tortellini.

The day after Professor Lessig spoke to a small group of us at lunch, a friend forwarded me an email he had sent to his followers describing his visit to our “prominent conservative think tank.” His email, PowerPoint presentation, and talk were all framed as if we are on “the right,” which doesn’t sit well with many of us given the profound errors of modern conservatism.

I don’t mind when politicians, reporters, and cab drivers call the Cato Institute “conservative.” I don’t expect them to know better. I’ll even use the “conservative” moniker to advantage as an advocate if it can communicate that our support of civil liberties spans ideologies. But Lessig knows the difference between conservative and libertarian, and he wasn’t trying to show that there’s pan-ideological agreement on certain ideas. Or maybe he was…

His email talked about how, “nearly universally, [we] saw the same problems [he] did,” about our “shared” views, and “agreement that 20 years of conservative Presidents in the last 29 did not produce less government or simpler taxes.” Conspicuously absent was any reference to the polite but persistent challenges we addressed to Professor Lessig’s thesis, framing, and assumptions in the discussion that followed his presentation.

I think most of us believe that money ineluctably follows power. Accordingly, smaller government – not “better” campaign finance laws, and definitely not speech controls – will reduce the need for, and power of, money in politics.

But as I thought about it, I continued to grow doubtful that Professor Lessig was interested in an actual discussion of such issues. Why, for example, did he deliver a 20-minute, canned PowerPoint presentation – decent fare for college students – to ten or so Ph.D.s in economics and political science, top think-tank executives, and deeply experienced Washington hands? (And, ugh, the corny appeal to Ronald Reagan.) It wasn’t to bring the conference staff up to speed. My conclusion is that Lessig came to produce a video he could tout to his fan-base. Lessig tames the conservative lions.

Reviewing the tape with this thesis in mind, I had reason to second-guess Lessig’s assertion that he had convinced Richard Epstein to support public funding of elections in a recent debate. What Lessig said, exactly, was this:

Richard Epstein … at the end of this debate was willing to concede that in his view the only solution he saw – or one solution, he also wants term limits – but one solution to this economy of influence, this economy of corruption, was, as he described it, public funding.

I’d characterize it as a recorded conversation, but Lessig spins it as a full-fledged debate, taking Epstein’s cordiality as concessions on key points.

The image I’ve reproduced here, from Lessig’s PowerPoint, reaffirms to lay audiences that Epstein is a supporter of public funding. Imagery like this is fair in political campaigns. But it’s unfair in intellectual discussions – especially when communicated to thousands of people who don’t know Epstein’s thinking well.

I also went ahead and asked Professor Epstein what he thinks of Professor Lessig’s characterizations – something Lessig might have done before splashing “public funding” across Epstein’s face. Professor Epstein’s thoughts appear in a companion to this post.

Professor Lessig is an important public intellectual, and the issues he has focused on are important. But my sense is that his visit to Cato used the pretext of intellectual inquiry to make the Cato Institute a prop in his campaign to promote public funding of elections. I don’t think he should have associated our organization with that campaign.