Lawrence Lessig on institutional corruption

January 28, 2010Jon Brooks Comments Off

Below is a lecture on the question of institutional corruption given in October by Professor Lawrence Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard. The center has posted a summary of the lecture; an extract from the summary, on the institutional corruption of the U.S. Congress, is below the video.

Institutional corruption in the U.S. Congress

Institutional corruption should not, Lessig argued, be thought as exemplified by the blatantly unethical and illegal activities of individuals such as Rod Blagojevich or Jack Abramoff. Rather, Lessig argued, distinctly institutional corruption ought to be understood as activities that, despite their being in accordance with existing institutional rules, either result in or from some improper influence within that institution’s economy of influence that brings about either 1) a weakening of the effectiveness of that institution, or 2) a weakening of the public’s trust of that institution.

To illustrate this framework, Professor Lessig went on to discuss its application with respect to the institution that he regards as being most obviously rife with institutional corruption: the US Congress. Describing Congress’s economy of influence, Professor Lessig explained the ways in which members of Congress, lobbyists, and the corporate interests that fund those lobbyists have developed a deeply entrenched interdependency (e.g. members of Congress have become reliant on lobbyists for campaign contributions during their time in office, and for employment once they leave office) that results in lobbyists and their corporate sponsors having an undue level of influence on the shape of Congressional legislation. In support of this analysis, Lessig cataloged a wide variety of cases involving Congress giving bad answers to seemingly easy policy questions (e.g. cases involving nutritional standards, copyright extension, global warming), arguing that the only way to make sense of this level of legislative incompetence is by appeal to either idiocy on the part of the legislators (an explanation that Lessig rejects as implausible) or the undue influence of lobbyists and their corporate sponsors. Worse still, Lessig went on, not only has this dependency on lobbyists and their corporate sponsors resulted in Congress being less effective (thus satisfying the framework’s first criterion for institutional corruption), but it has also resulted in a severe weakening of the public’s trust of the institution (thus satisfying the second criterion). In defense of this second claim, Lessig noted that in his (previous) home district in California, a dramatic 88% of citizens now assent to the claim that “money buys results.”

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