Lawrence Lessig was once best-known as the special master in the Microsoft Antitrust Case, then he was best known as the co-founder of Creative Commons, then as a fire-breathing corruption fighter: in America, Compromised, a long essay (or short nonfiction book), Lessig proposes as lucid and devastating a theory of corruption as you'll ever find, a theory whose explanatory power makes today's terrifying news cycle make sense -- and a theory that demands action.
For decades, America has been undoing the great work of history's anti-corruption movements, allowing the wealthy to intervene directly in politics, creating political outcomes that increase their wealth -- lather, rinse repeat.
The courts and their ideological backers -- the Chicago School economists who used shitty math to prove that greed is good and that corruption consists solely of direct quid-pro-quo bribery -- have served as enablers and even cheerleaders for this new Gilded Age, celebrating anonymous political cash contributions as a form of speech protected under the First Amendment and arguing that the Framers of the Constitution would have agreed wholeheartedly with them.
Lessig walks a fine line between academic and activist as he rebuts this argument, drawing on the research produced by the fellows at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, an interdisciplinary corruption-study center he founded at Harvard and then turning to the rhetoric that made him such an inspirational figure in the Free Culture movement.
Lessig lays out the historic case for the Framers' understanding of corruption as a systemic phenomenon, in which the structure of institutions demand that even the best, most moral people sacrifice their principles to thrive (or just survive) -- a conception at long odds with the Chicago School orthodoxy and the think tanks and ruling elites that back it.
From this historic perspective, Lessig painstakingly builds up an argument about how inequality has fueled corruption, which has fueled inequality -- and how the bankrupt ideology of the Chicago School corrupted every institution, forcing each of us to make one tiny compromise after another, until we arrive at the present moment.
Lessig's use of case-studies alternated with broad statistical and political analysis flips back and forth from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, from individuals and institutions to the whole society and back again, in a story that is as compelling as it is infuriating.
Lessig is well-known for having formulated the "four forces" theory of social change: that the world is moved by markets (what is profitable), norms (what is considered ethical), code (what is technically possible) and laws (what is legal). In his final section, he presents a set of prescriptions touching on all four factors, from the discussions we need to have with one another about these issues (norms) to the tools that would help us hold the powerful to account (code) to the policies that would reverse the damage (laws) to the kinds of businesses and nonprofits that could help us make a better world (markets). In a moment when the monopolism of Big Tech is replicating itself in every sector from energy to aviation to prisons to finance, these prescriptions are both reasonable and compelling.
This is a short book, but it's full of very big ideas. Lessig's dual identities of "scholar" and "activist" have never been so perfectly merged.
America, Compromised [Lawrence Lessig/University of Chicago]
(Image: Joi Ito, CC-BY)
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