Larry Lessig was on the National Journal's list of the nation's most influential lawyers and Scientific American's "Top 50 Visionaries" list, which has to be—as UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol said when he introduced Lessig at the General Assembly Tuesday—some kind of first.
In the last 15 years, Lessig has emerged as one of the nation's best-known intellectuals for his work on the legal and cultural questions related to digital technology, information transfer, the freedom of inquiry and open-source software.
Such hallmarks of the Internet Age as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Software Freedom Law Center and Creative Commons all bear his mark. At Harvard University he teaches at the law school and heads the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.
For the last four years, though, Lessig's work on technology issues has given way to a cause that he believes is more urgent and, indeed, fundamental to the future of democracy in this country. The cause is Voter-Owned Elections, or as he sometimes calls them, Citizen-Funded Elections.
Lessig's transformation from committed policy wonk to impassioned elections reformer occurred over several years, he says, as he worked to change the copyright laws impeding the Internet. Gradually, he said, the view that the laws should allow a more open exchange of information took hold in society, but not in government. Inside government, he found, it was as if no one was even thinking about it.
The reason, he discovered, was simple: "All the money was on the other side." Enormous campaign contributions were coming from corporate interests whose profits depended on maintaining the status quo.
Lessig soon recognized that the system of campaign financing by special interests wasn't merely gumming up our ability to share data, it also explained why Wall Street was out of control, health care reform was a mess and, lately, why deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was a disaster waiting to happen.
In contrast to open-source Internet systems, "where the architecture has trust built right into it," he said, "we have a marionette Congress that is anything but transparent"—or trustworthy.
So Lessig founded an organization called Change Congress and, at Harvard, is leading the intellectual charge for a renewal of ethical standards inside government, corporations and in every realm of American life. Otherwise, we're doomed to public policies that are good for the fortunate few, he said, but "insanely stupid" for the country.
Lessig was in Raleigh on what reformers dubbed "Voter-Owned Elections Day." In a well choreographed action, Democratic leaders in the Senate used the occasion to unveil an ethics reform bill that featured expanded public financing of statewide elections. The 34-page bill would also require government officials to provide a more detailed disclosure of private business interests and would slow the revolving door between government jobs and those in the businesses the government regulates.
Reformers like Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, had yet to fully assess the legislation as they watched a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee with Lessig. Phillips liked the fact that all of the Council of State elections, except for governor and lieutenant governor, would be given a public-funding option by the 2012 elections or, in the case of attorney general, the 2016 elections.
On the other hand, Phillips and local leaders such as Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker want cities to be able to consider public-funding systems for their elections. A House-passed bill would let them; the Senate package, though, contains no such authority.
Lessig didn't comment on the Senate bill. But he told reporters that because the public understands that money talks in government, and their views don't, "public support for the British Crown may have been higher at the time of the American Revolution than it is for Congress today."
At the state level, too, Lessig said, people simply don't trust that government mistakes may be honest oversights. What they see instead is "sell-out government to the interests that pay."
Speaking to activists gathered at the Legislature by Common Cause, Democracy North Carolina, N.C. Voters for Clean Elections and other groups, Lessig pointed to three egregious cases in which lawmakers were beholden to special interests for campaign money and therefore unwilling to regulate those interests for the public good.
One case was Wall Street, where derivatives and hedge fund trading remains unregulated, even after the 2007–08 meltdown. A second was BP's Gulf Coast disaster: Because of congressional mandate, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate offshore drilling operations, but an industry-controlled arm of the Department of the Interior does.
The easiest to understand, perhaps, was the third case: childhood obesity. Congress subsidizes corn syrup to the tune of $74 billion, helping the commercial food industry load up its cheapest products with high-fructose, high-calorie additives.
The costs borne by our health care system are an estimated $147 billion a year, Lessig said.
Meanwhile, cola costs are down, fast food is cheap and corporate profits are high.
Whatever your political leanings, Lessig argued, attacking the corruption requires replacing special-interest money with public funds. More liberals are on board with this idea than conservatives, Lessig acknowledged, but the Tea Party types, in particular, should pay attention.
Republican presidents have been in charge for 20 of the last 29 years, and they promised smaller government and simpler taxes, Lessig says. But we have bigger government and more complicated taxes instead, and the reason is that the complications generate bigger contributions to Congress from lobbyists and the interests they represent.
What's more, Lessig said, studies show that the contributions bring huge returns on investment to the companies sending the cash.
"I think the Tea Party is an extremely important movement," Lessig said, "not because I [as a progressive] agree with the substance of what they're arguing for, but I think it's very clear that though we don't share common goals, we have a common enemy."