Converse's Reviews > Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It

Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig
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Oct 29, 2011

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Read from October 28 to 29, 2011 , read count: 1

Actually Lessig, a law professor at Harvard, offers at least 4 different plans of varying but low probability of accomplishment. He describes the problem as "dependency corruption," meaning that there is a constant interchange of political actions and campaign cash, or threat of contributions to opposing candidates, between members of the United States Congress and various interested parties. As there is no explicit trade of campaign contributions for a particular vote, the process is legal and has become so ubiquitious that those involved have difficulty seeing how things could be different. Proving that there is a clear link between campaign contributions and votes has been something political scientists have had difficulty documenting. Lessig argues, convincingly to me, that some of the reasons they have trouble making the connection are 1) most of the important politicking has been done before a vote on the floor of the House or Senate, 2) members adjust their views in advance before asking for contributions, so there is no explicit evidence of a change in a member's view as a result of asking for contributions, 3) and that often the contributions are given to avoid a bill being passed or to preserve the status quo, as when a "sunset" provision for a tax loophole is due to expire. Lessig also argues, convincingly in my view, that even if nothing that a layperson would consider corruption occurs, the agenda and time devoted to actual legislating suffer under the current campaign finance system.

Lessig gives numerous examples of regulatory, agricultural, and tax policies that to me seem inexplicable without reference to campaign contributions. For example, the high price of sugar in the United States benefits both the tiny number of American sugar growers and the rather larger number of persons involved in producing corn syrup, a substitute. Lessig tries to come up with examples that will convince both big-government Democrats and small-government Republicans that something is very wrong and that neither would suffer a partisan disadvantage as a result of campaign finance reform. It is not always a matter of individuals, corporations or unions asking for favors, and later (or earlier) contributions to a campaign; it can be a member of Congress asking for a contribution, with an implied "or else something bad will happen to a law or regulation you depend upon."

Lessig's proposed solutions strike me as at best long term propositions. One option he favors a system when candidates voluntarily agree to take only small ($100 max) contributions and what looks like an improved federal tax payer campaign check off, but this time for specific Congressional candidates of the voter's choice rather than for the President. He also suggests a constitutional convention. He also has less plausible options, such as both presidential candidates from the major parties declaring they will veto all legislation until campaign finance is passed, whereupon they will resign the Presidency.

Lessig does have some favorite words that struck me as odd. He constantly refers to individuals as "souls," some good, some bad. He also occasionally refers to those who share his conviction that reducing the influence of money on politics as "rootstrikers" apparently mimicking a quote from Thoreau.
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