Sunday, March 09, 2008

Money, Knowledge, and Power

I tend to ignore those who repeat the blather about how money corrupts the political process. The phrase, like many repeated in the political arena, seems almost meaningless because almost everyone uses it. Being the cynic that I am, I tend to roll my eyes when I hear someone use that phrase even if I'm supposed to think that they are some intellectual spouting some deep political insight.

Larry Lessig, a Stanford law professor, is using this "money corrupts politics" idea as somewhat of a centerpiece for his Change Congress campaign. A recent blog posting on briefly explains the current buzz around Lessig's movement. I'd like to comment on some of his statements in order develop my point about political corruption.

First, Lessig is quoted as saying "Money corrupts the process of reasoning...They [legislators] get a sixth sense of how what they do might affect how they raise money." Again, being the cynic that I am I would question whether politicians "reason" about any piece of legislation that crosses their desk (e.g., the PATRIOT ACT). Nonetheless, this statement begs the question: What are legislators doing that would cause them to have to worry about how they raise money?

Let me move on to his second statement: "Lawmakers need to be free from a system that requires them to constantly raise money in order to free them to simply think about how to craft good public policy." I could go along with this if we had a government of limited scope; a government that didn't meddle in the affairs of other nations; a government that wasn't involved in the birth, eduction, business, pleasure, and retirement of the citizens it is supposed to obey; but we don't have that kind of government. We have a government that pervades society, and increasingly inserts itself into the affairs of the people. The knowledge needed to craft "good" policy in a complex society is not knowable even by intelligent men like Mr. Lessig.

I can anticipate the response to the above statement: Legislators will consult the wisest members of the appropriate fields before drafting legislation. This is a naive, Utopian conceit that still assumes knowledge that is not knowable. On economic issues, should you consult an economist or the business man that must make profit and loss decisions? On technology, should you consult the big players in the industry or the guy tinkering in his garage? On health care, should you consult hospitals which are few in number or the vast number of health care consumers clamoring for "free" drugs and medical procedures who, by the way, will be voting in large quantities in the next election?

What it comes down to is that money isn't the problem. Money in politics is like a fever - an effect of a more serious cause. That more serious cause is an insidious disease that can consume anyone. That disease is power.

Money, on the other hand, is the medium of exchange with which those who must succumb to power purchase access to those who exploit power. Fixating on that medium obscures the true source of corruption.

If Mr. Lessig is serious about corruption in politics he should be looking to curb its true source. I fear, however, that he is not serious because his policy recommendations only consolidate more power in the hands of politicians (e.g., government funding of political campaigns).

So, maybe I shouldn't ignore those who use the phrase "money corrupts politics." It's a marker that tells me that the speaker either doesn't understand the true source of political corruption, or the speaker wants access to that source.

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