Lessig Connects Old South, Hong Kong

On Thursday, October 16, the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lectures kicked off with a highly distinguished inaugural speaker: Lawrence Lessig. You might have heard of Lessig. He helped create Creative Commons. He has one of the most popular TED talks. He was a professor at the UChicago Law School from 1991-1997. He’s a giant in the area of intellectual property law, but in recent years he has turned his energies towards battling America’s institutional corruption. This isn’t corruption in the sense of bribes—but in the sense of deviating from the institution’s intended purpose.

The first lecture in the series was about Congress. Professor Lessig began by describing a multi-stage election process. The first stage is a nominating phase, and the second is the election phase. This model is widely used in democratic systems, but it fails to be democratic if the nominating phase is biased. He dubbed such a system “Tweedism” after 19th-century American politician Boss Tweed, who famously quipped, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” Lessig went on to illustrate that Tweedism is more widespread than one might initially expect.

First, Lessig called to mind the “all-whites” primaries that persisted in Texas throughout much of the 20th Century. Under these conditions, anyone who hoped to run in the general election first needed to be nominated by whites in the primary. Obviously, this conferred upon whites disproportionate (i.e. absolute) influence over the set of candidates from which a politician would be chosen. The result was a material disenfranchisement of the non-white population—a plain instance of intentional Tweedism.

Then Lessig highlighted a more immediate example. In Hong Kong, residents have taken to the streets in protest of the recent Hong Kong electoral reform. Essentially, China had promised Hong Kong that by 2017, the Chief Executive (akin to the governor) of Hong Kong would be elected by universal suffrage. But Beijing recently ruled that candidates in that election would be chosen by a nominating committee heavily populated with party loyalists. Another example of (purportedly intentional) Tweedism.

Finally, Lessig brought the point home to the US. In this country, more than 90% of elections are won by the candidate with the most funds. So “funders” determine who runs, and ultimately wins, elections. In 2010, just 150,000 Americans (0.05% of the population) donated the maximum amount to an individual federal candidate, so that cohort could be considered the population of relevant funders.But the real influence is concentrated in the 0.000042 percent of Americans who were responsible for 60% of the Super PAC contributions in 2012. Only 132 people gave the $1 million (or more) to be in that exclusive club. It’s Tweedism again, albeit unintentional. But does its unintentionality make it less potent? Not at all. Such a system corrupts congress by requiring elected officials to serve two masters: on the one hand, Americans as a whole; on the other hand, the super-rich. The resolution to the current quandary is unclear, but suggestions include conducting small-contribution campaigns (candidates agree in advance not to accept contributions above a certain size) or using a Super PAC to fight existing Super PACs. In fact Lessig is attempting the latter with his Mayday PAC, which backs candidates who commit to passing campaign finance reform.

Professor Lessig will continue the stirring lecture series over the next four weeks (10/23-11/13). Topics will be finance, media, the academy, and remedies. They will held on Thursdays from 5:00-6:30 pm at the Regenstein Library, room 122. More information may be found at berlinfamilylectures.uchicago.edu.