Tag: public funding of elections

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.

Lawrence Lessig, Libertarian

This past week Professor Lawrence Lessig of the Harvard Law School dropped into the Cato Institute to give his stump speech on his new passion: the corruption in government. There is no question that he has picked a subject large enough to test his own ambitions, for the ever expanding size of government opens up new avenues for political intrigue that leave the defenders of small government like myself in tears, no matter which party is in power.

Lessig and I, it seems, share a common bond on the identification of the disease. But his presentation to the Cato Institute did not reflect the chasm on the question of remedy. Lessig is a one-dimensional man. Once he thinks that public funding of elections is the cure for the political disease, he mounts his crusade. I am an academic, not a public crusader. And I don’t much appreciate being enlisted without my knowledge in a campaign not entirely to my liking.

So by way of penance, I think that Lessig should enlist himself in my academic cause. I hope that in the spirit of internet openness he will post on his web site my take on his venture. He could start by adding a third caption to the (unauthorized) use of my picture: After putting the words, Public Funding, he should make the new slide “Public Funding Skeptic”—which best captures the flow of our  discussion. In the course of that exchange, I identified what I thought was the cause of the current malaise.

At various times, I extolled the virtues of Lochner v. New York, and championed a narrow reading of the commerce power. I passionately defended the use of term limits—10 in the house and four in the senate—that were short enough to have some bite, but long enough to allow for continuity in government. I attacked the built-in incumbent bias to modern elections. I went out of my way to denounce the limitations on campaign funding contained in the McCain/Feingold Act, which just got beat up in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, just as I hoped it would do in my prior Forbes.com column. I insisted that limitations on campaign finance could intensify the lobbying on particular issues. Truth be known, he was doing all the back-pedaling, not me.

You can be the judge: just listen to our discussion to see if it lines up with the mock-heroic account of his own intellectual derring-do he gave to his Cato audience, two of whom emailed me to ask, what gives:

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.

Note how much error Lessig can pack into a single sentence. It wasn’t a debate. I didn’t “concede” a thing, least of all to him. I didn’t “also want” term limits. I was gung ho for them. I didn’t particularly support public funding initiatives. I didn’t oppose them in small elections, even though I thought they were likely to fail.

Next note the omissions. Lessig never mentions that most of my remarks were devoted to explaining why efforts to stop political action won’t do much good unless and until the rules of the game are so altered so that politicians have little to sell or little to threaten. So in a spirit of generous reciprocation, I hereby announce that Lessig has “conceded” the soundness of all my attacks on the New Deal and thus count him as a principled ally in the fight for structural reform that returns us to the original constitutional design. Then think just how much harder that task has become. If the self-appointed champion in the war against corruption can’t be counted on to give an accurate account of a recorded dialogue in which he took part, what chance do the rest of us mere mortals have to put an end to political corruption?