Lessig Speaks on Institutional Corruption

On January 20, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig visited Stanford to give a lecture on institutional corruption, his new area of study.

This shift represents something of a departure for Prof. Lessig, who to this point was known for his work on copyright law, publishing five books on the topic.  These books include Free Culture (2004) and Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.

As something of a hint as to how he feels about copyright law, Lessig has made all five books available online for free. Lessig believes that current copyright laws are far too restrictive and that a larger public domain would be good for enhancing creativity.

In his new work, which he tried to lay out at the lecture, it is somewhat less clear what Prof. Lessig is going for. He handily diagnosed some instances of “institutional corruption,” which Stanford Prof. Debra Satz defined in her introduction of Lessig as “Relationships which are legal, even currently ethical, but which weaken public trust in an institution.”

Indeed, Lessig provided a wide range of examples of institutional corruption, cases where institutions come to either have, or appear to have improper dependence on outside institutions. His examples were based largely on innuendo and circumstantial evidence designed to show that if an institution cannot keep such insinuations from being made, it is institutionally corrupt. Per Lessig, institutional corruption is activity within an “economy of influence” that weaken public trust or the effectiveness of an institution.

One particularly salient example was Lessig’s argument that institutional corruption in the United States government has exploded since the 1980s. He argued that congressmen are so likely to work as lobbyists after they hold elected office (he cited a figure of 50% for Senators) that the Capitol is in effect, a “farm league for K Street.”

Lessig pointed out instances of institutional corruption in politics, public health, medicine, journalism and the financial sector. In all of his examples it was difficult to argue with the point—few needed a Harvard Law professor to tell them that the financial sector and politics are probably not the most trusted of industries.

Lessig never ventured beyond description into prescription, finishing with vague platitudes, saying that to stem institutional corruption, “The responsibility we need to focus is the responsibility of the good people, the decent people,” and that institutional corruption has been instituted by the privileged but permitted by the passivity of the people.

Still, those descriptions as they related to corruption were compelling and interesting. The famed “Lessig method” of presentation wherein he rapidly flips through hundreds if not thousands of slides showing pictures, words and short phrases has its weaknesses (it can be quite dizzying), but it does keep the viewer enrapt, and is easily digested.

One can hope that as Prof. Lessig continues his work he will find ways to not only diagnose, but also propose some solutions to the problems of institutional corruption. For now though, we’ll have to wait.

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