Samuel Jacobs, a senior at Harvard College and associate managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, recently interviewed Larry Lessig for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe. The conversation illustrated Lessig’s situationist perspective of corruption. Here are some excerpts.
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ROD BLAGOJEVICH ACCUSED of trying to sell a Senate seat. Dianne Wilkerson stuffing cash into her shirt. A Harvard doctor taking huge consulting fees from drug companies. This past year ended with a collection of new examples of a very old problem: corruption. Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford intellectual-property scholar recently hired away by Harvard Law School, believes he may have some solutions.
Lessig, who has built a reputation as a leading advocate for free culture and loosening copyright laws, surprised many two years ago by shifting his attention from cutting-edge Internet law to the broader problem of corruption. At Harvard, Lessig will head up the university’s Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, where he will begin a five-year effort to investigate corruption in government and academia.
He sees both fields as polluted by the emergence of a consulting culture in which professors and advocates, whose independence is crucial to society, regularly take payments from corporations and industry groups for their advice and services. As a result, people presume that money is behind every effort of public policy, and trust collapses.
Lessig, 47, hopes his project will help change how we think about corruption, moving the focus away from corrupt individuals and toward the bigger systemic question of how society supports and enables them.
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IDEAS: How depressing is corruption these days?
LESSIG: I think we’re getting to the maximum depression point. The reason is I think that institutions that before had a stronger ethic of independence have given that ethic up. I think that we are seeing an erosion of practices which produced institutions that we could trust.
IDEAS: How do we go about fixing these things?
LESSIG: There are some people who think about the word “corruption” and they are thinking about it as if it is speaking about something evil. . . . Evil brings to mind images like Hitler or Pol Pot. I’m very much of the view that that is not an interesting way to think about this problem. We have enough attention and understanding about why people like Hitler or Pol Pot or the bad guys in the financial crisis are bad guys. I don’t think we’re actually going to make much progress focusing more of our attention on those bad guys.
What we need to do is to recognize the bad guys in all of us. All of us who don’t take small steps that actually would have a significant chance to eliminate problems. In the academic context, when you don’t raise a question about colleagues who are accepting money to do policy research, making policy recommendations that are directly connected to the money that they are receiving, what you are doing is nothing evil in the Hitler sense. You are just being weak. You’re not asserting an ethical position that, if asserted, might actually help keep the integrity of the institution.
IDEAS: What has your own experience been with corruption?
LESSIG: I had this experience very viscerally when I was having a private debate with one of my colleagues, who it turned out had been giving public policy advice about some area that we were disagreeing on. I discovered that he was being paid by a party directly interested in the public policy advice he was giving. I said to him that your authority as a figure comes from the fact that people believe what you’re doing is saying what you think is true, not saying what you think pays the bills.
IDEAS: What about your interactions with government?
LESSIG: I tell this story in one of my talks about Senator Sununu sending me a nasty note, after I was down in D.C. talking about network neutrality, saying that I ought not to be shilling for these companies. It struck me that he couldn’t imagine that while I was down there doing public policy work, I might just be down there not because somebody was paying me to do it, but because I thought it was the right answer.
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IDEAS: What sorts of things might you do at Harvard?
LESSIG: We could pick the domains of public life where trust is a central part of the success of the mission of those domains: medical research or the legal profession or the media . . . or what Congress does. Trust is at the center of those institutions, in the sense that if you want people to listen to you when you tell them that they should vaccinate their children against malaria, people need to trust that when you say the vaccines are safe, they are safe.
If you don’t have that trust in society, what happens is that people don’t vaccinate their kids against malaria, and malaria starts to take off, and as it takes off there are devastating consequences for the population. Trust is at the center of that relationship. The question is how we build trust.
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To read the entire interview, click here. To read some related Situationist posts, see “Al Gore – The Situationist,” “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism,”“A Convenient Fiction,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “The Situation of University Research,” “The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .,” ” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Industry-Funded Research,” and “Industry-Funded Research – Part II.”