I heard Lessig was giving a talk about the problem of money systematically corrupting congress, and since I’ve enjoyed some previous presentations of his online I decided to attend. As a bonus, I also got to see Richard Posner in the flesh, albeit at a distance and he didn’t speak to the audience. It wasn’t all that different from a particular presentation I’ve seen before, probably linked from Distributed Republic or A Thousand Nations. Lessig’s presentations are much better made than the typical powerpoint, and I saw lots of transitions on the screen while his hands were gesticulating in the air, so I imagine he must have his talk timed or something. In a way, the savviness of his presentations skills made me more suspicious of his actual argument, because I expect presentational talent and truth of a message to have little correlation but enough persuasive power to be on guard against. A lot of his argument is intentionally crafted to appeal to libertarians/Tea Partiers as well as liberals/OWS, and like anyone else I found many of his points completely and uncontroversially correct: a “no brainer” as he quotes Milton Friedman. The alarm bells were most clearly ringing in my head when he acknowledged the political science literature* showing no influence of campaign donations on legislative behavior, to which he replied something to the effect of “But YOU, the audience KNOW I’m correct!”. He did later on try to reconcile his argument with that of the political scientists by saying the effect could be on agenda setting rather than behavior once a question is on the agenda, but when you limit things that way it’s hard to say you’d get the big effects he’s talking about.

He took questions at the end, but there wasn’t enough time for everyone. I’ll just add the points I wanted to make here. First I’d like to steal from Gene Healy, author of “The Cult of the Presidency”. Part of the package of reforms Lessig advocates is a focus on candidates getting lots of small donations, rather than large ones from a small number of people. But another one of his complaints is the amount of time legislators spend raising money. We’ve already had numerous laws limiting the size of donations, and Healy argues that’s precisely why a candidate would have to spend a very large amount of time raising money. I’ve made the point before (again relying on Healy) that because of a small group of big donors “outside” candidates like Gene McCarthy and George McGovern were able to make a big splash, although both failed to win the presidency. Self-funded billionaires also frequently crash and burn. That’s because money is not the be-all end-all, but often a proxy for support (Ron Paul has a fairly small but intense group of supporters willing to undertake “money bombs”, which is why some of his success in straw polls is discounted). Ben Franklin is supposed to have recommended getting someone else to do you a favor rather than the other way around in order to get them to like you, and psychologists have done experiments lending support to that idea which they describe as resolving cognitive dissidence. Ziad Munson argues something similar when it comes to political movements. Fund-raising is not merely a way of acquiring cash right now, but networking and the building of a support structure that you expect to be there for you in the future. Lots of folks on the right (and sometimes left) complain about the political influence of unions, and that influence isn’t because they have Ponce de Leon’s fountain of cash (although sometimes they are among the largest donors). It’s because unions also have bodies and organization and motivation, along with a degree of sympathy among many voters. Political machines from Tammany to the Daleys have operated on a similar basis. Industries likewise have not merely a treasury but employees with an interest in policy outcomes. Lobbyists don’t just provide campaign funds but assistance to legislators who know less about the law than the well-funded and interested lobbying organizations, who are often writing model legislation themselves.

Lessig noted that on the issues where the richest quartile of Americans disagree with the majority, they tend to get their way. He also noted that much less than even that number donate money to campaigns. Here again I think he is focusing too much on money as a causal mechanism, when (considering the status of most congresscritters) a more leftish social/class explanation has some plausibility. I don’t mean to completely exclude the influence of money (maybe the political scientists are finding no effects because it can be hard to find things), but I think the focus which on it which seems obvious to populists leads them to overlook the larger nature of the problem which Mancur Olson perhaps better pointed out with his Logic of Collective Action combined with the ever increasing complexity and number of things our government has power over. And that’s leaving out Caplan & Hanson’s points about why politics is screwed up.

I previously discussed the Citizens United decision here, with a link at the end on which groups do the most campaign spending at the unconstrained state level in California.

*That paper probably isn’t representative, but I found it while googling something else and I’m lazy enough to just use it here.