Lawrence Lessig: Being a Citizen is a Public Office, too

In his latest book, Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, issues a call to arms to fix our broken body politic–starting with “us.”

Why, you might wonder, is a famous Harvard Law professor and the founder of Creative Commons writing a book to wake us up to the fundamental problem facing our republic?

The simple answer:  Aaron Swartz.

Swartz, the free culture activist, and Lawrence Lessig were friends and collaborators. As Lessig recounted here in February, one day, Swartz came to visit him, challenging Lessig to combat the basic corruption of our political process. “But Aaron, it’s not my field, corruption. My field is internet, culture and copyright,” Lessig protested. Swartz countered, “As an academic? What about as a citizen?”

Photos by Patrick T. Power

That was in 2006. Thirteen years later on on a drizzly December night in San Francisco, Lawrence Lessig came to the Internet Archive where Swartz once worked, to frame the core flaw in our republic in a new way. It forms the central argument of Lessig’s latest book, They Don’t Represent Us. The “they” is of course our Congress—who aren’t representing our interests. “And Us. We the People. We don’t represent us,” he said to an audience of 300 listeners. 

Lessig began with a lesson in historical time. In Silicon Valley time, 20 years is an epoch—the Googlian Era one might call it. But in government, Lessig contrasted, 20 years can add up to nothing. Twenty years ago, he noted, climate change was acknowledged to be man-made and real; the Clinton administration proposed affordable health care; the mass shooters at Columbine killed 13 people. And two decades later, our government has passed not a single law that comprehensively addresses climate change, universal health care or gun control.  

Why? Because our elected representatives aren’t representing us. With the precision of a surgeon, Lessig took the stage to perform an autopsy on our body politic. Our diseases are well known: gerrymandering that empowers the political extremes, campaign funding that empowers the wealthy, the media that feeds us whatever sells best.

18 years ago, Lessig helped found the Creative Commons, a fundamental tool in making some creative works available for reuse—a foundation upon which of Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive is built.

And yet, Larry Lessig says he is hopeful. “You know my brand.  My brand is pessimism. But I am optimistic.” In the coming election year, he reminds us that “being a citizen is a public office.” Even though the election will most likely be a “dumpster fire,” he told me, “We must steer the conversation beyond 2020, to more fundamental issues.” 

Lessig’s critique stands above party or personality. He urges us to challenge every candidate, blue or red, by saying:  “Tell me how you are going to fix this problem first, this corrupt system, first,” he said “If we are going to fix anything else, we have to take up that fight.”

To get involved, visit https://equalcitizens.us/

Read the New York Times review of “They Don’t Represent Us” here.

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79 Responses to Lawrence Lessig: Being a Citizen is a Public Office, too

  1. Corruption is the enemy of development, and of good governance. It must be got rid of. Both the government and the people at large must come together to achieve this national objective.

  2. cassiel says:

    I’ve been active for genuine (direct) democracy in Germany for more than 25 years. In Germany we face a system similar as in the USA: corrupt politicians who care about the millionaires interests and not the people. The results are completely frustrating. Progress at the beginning has come to a stop 15 years ago. No progress changing the system anymore. When it comes to power, as a citizen you don’t get the foot in the door. The gatekeepers of the system take care that you don’t. Listen to George Carlin “Best 3 Minutes” and you know what you are dealing with: if you have no chance to change a system with peaceful means, you live in a dictatorship. Period.
    So all attempts to change the system failed, fail, will fail and if the didn’t fail, they would come much too late so stop climate change or solve the major issues before it is too late. Sorry, we are f****d.

    • Sven says:

      For Germany I would not accept your „corruption“ statement. As you say it started 15 years ago, you are clearly referring to „the Merkel era“ which is talking point of the extreme right (AfD) here.

      Problem: Both statements – from the Professor and from you – are just statements, probably from different political standpoints. Not a single fact has been given. Not helping.

      • cassiel says:

        > Problem: Both statements – from the Professor and from you – are just statements,
        > probably from different political standpoints. Not a single fact has been given. Not
        > helping.

        Applies perfectly to your posting.
        Well, you cannot prevent anyone from drawing conclusions about yourself.

    • Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.

  3. I was put into office by the people who believed in my idea that corruption is the root of poverty; that an end to corruption would mean an end to poverty.

    • Eric Clark says:

      Historically, the US has always been a dichotomy between the rhetoric of the constitution and rule of law; and, the True Belief and over riding value system of the almighty dollar and its economic system, which encourages Corruption and Greed. I say rhetoric of the constitution because the US has never lived up to the ideals of the constitution. It has always been a bait and switch. Tell the masses what they want to hear to pacify them (control mechanism), but do what’s in best interest of the ruling elite. In other words, do what I say not what I do.

      The constitution is a moral document and is beautifully written. Unfortunately, economics rule the day (always has); thus, the dichotomy. Money is the true value system and rule of law of the United States. Historically, when presented with a choice between money and people: people always lose. Whether it is the land owner, industrialists (millionaires), or internet billionaires. They win, always.

      You need the following for greed and corruption to flourish: 1) Narcissistic individuals; 2) A debt base economic system; 3) corrupt politicians which lead to corrupt legislation; and 4) Corrupt rules of law; 5) A policing force to enforce the corruption.

      The current system will never be corrected until Wall Street, the Federal Reserve System and banks are both eliminated and corrected. A debt based system can not fuel an economy because unlimited continual growth is a fallacy, i.e., pollution, man induced climate change, wage inequality, poverty, starvation, IMF and central bank corruption and war. It is a paper tiger without a moral base and lacks adherence to natural laws that should rule value systems and behaviors.

      Adherence to natural laws must become the world wide currency of choice. Not worthless sums of printed paper currency that is constantly being devalued through quantitative easing and roll over debt financing.

    • Charles Beaston says:

      Are you for real, give me a break “by the people” corruption is the root of all evil? You really don’t understand the gatekeeper system and wealth. If you get a chance please read The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen.

    • Fed up Voter says:

      Sorry – there will never be an end to poverty. Take all the riches in the world, divide equally between all the inhabitants – and within 20 years or so, there will be poverty and rich and everything in between, Sorry, but give a good-sized payout to some of these in poverty and they’ll blow it and be back in the hand-to-mouth world within a few months. It’s sad – but it’s what’s called HUMAN NATURE!

      • If poverty is a disease that infects the entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.

  4. Both the government and the people at large must come together to achieve this national objective

  5. …firstly, the Internet Archive is the pre-datastore for a DARPA million-year spaceship…
    …secondly, it should be pointed-out that what you learned in high school about styles of government, where, monarchy is on one end, democracy is on the other, and oligarchy is in-between, (and we have a republican-form of democracy), was only half, the story—the government spectrum, half—and the other half is the legal spectrum: where monarchy is on one end, democracy is in the middle, and oligarchy in-between, and the opposite end, to monarchy, is call ‘alpha-despot’ that has puzzled sociologists for centuries, how alpha, beta, gamma, and delta, can be the seemingly pervasive, illegal version of, government…

  6. Greg Flint says:

    The only way for “the government and the people at large to come together” is for the government to consist of The People.

    https://www.dictionary.com/browse/democracy

    #Sortition

  7. Maitreya says:

    The will to become true comes from peace and calmness, so begin with meditation!

    From calmness comes courage for 90%. With courage comes compassion for 80%.
    With compassion comes truth for 70%. When people are true they are not fooled by fallacy or negativity, but find positivity and truth, like the moon on a night sky and thus make right actions and vote correctly.

    In the USA there is a least three such leading candidates. Find this peaceful person! Support him or her!

    With truth nobody will vote for bullies or warmongers. Thus peaceful scientific rule begins with a consensus support of about 70%.

    No agenda, but just the next logical long-term step, presented with long term emotion, not destroying your own country, but creating long term ecological sustainability and happiness everywhere. Deliberative democracy. When science is not clear there must be a vote, by calm true open and skeptic people, people who are able to find creative solutions.

    Remember Meditation in peace is the basis! Enjoy the challenge!

  8. FS says:

    I would add that we seriously need to invoke term limits; career politicians are at the heart of this problem of lack of representation. Politicians become corrupt because they’ve been given too much time in office and have no sense of public service. And finally, judges who legislate from the bench are usurping the people’s will and tearing down the rule of law.

  9. Hasu says:

    While “Them” & “US” are the consequences of human actions, we seem to be believing it as the cause of the dire situations. We forget the fact that, for example, if sugar becomes bitter, then the whole cake is going to be bitter! We must learn to understand the fact that the only and only ingredient of good, bad and ugly is the education that has has derided the human value as secondary, and hence, expendable in comparison to market aspects. It is a sweet poison, but we call it a progress.

  10. james dinallo says:

    before representation we need to re educate our schools to the principles of democracy and not teach socialism leading to communism. you sir are a distraction from the real problems we face as a nation: communism not representation.

  11. Simone Selaga says:

    The Electoral College prevents one region from dominating our REPUBLIC. Without the electoral college we would have mob rule. The various large metropolitan areas would rule the country.

    Battle corruption? YES. However the system is not corrupt. The people are.

    The voters are the other half of the coin.

    Fix the voter apathy problem? There is the tough one.

  12. Greg Raven says:

    Could you have picked three worse examples of Congress’ failure to represent us? If you want affordable health care, get the government out of the health care business. No amount of “gun control” will stop mass shootings. You have to look at the core of the problem, which IMHO is the prescription of mind- and mood-altering drugs to huge numbers of our youth — the side effects of which are often downplayed or ignored. “Climate change” is part of the natural cycle on Earth. Man has had little to no effect on the climate, so transferring trillions of dollars from taxpayers to others is not a solution. Any further government action on any of these issues will result only in more misery.

  13. FRED C PATTERSON says:

    What we can do is to VOTE. Vote as intelligently as possible with all the information we can gather about each politician we are eligible to vote for, or against in my case, because their are few that I like, but always one I like the least. In the USA we can switch parties so no reason not to do so according to the best INDIVIDUAL running.

  14. C Jeffords says:

    Corruption is forever. It probably existed as soon as we evolved out of tribes and clans into what is laughingly known as “civilization”–in Ancient Egypt and Babylon. As long as governments have jobs, perks, benefits, contracts, to give out, people will bribe to get them. That’s just the way people are. But we can at least try to keep it under control. One way to do that would be to go after Big Corporations with a NET, like Teddy Roosevelt! We still have the Sherman Anti-Trust Act on the books. It was written by the man whose brother famously marched through Georgia. Let’s march through corporations and leave them a smoldering wreck!

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  16. Deborah White says:

    Mr. Lessig seems reasonable and truthful.

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  20. tom luther says:

    Might I remind folks about that “constitutiony” thing? There are no national objectives. Venezuela and Nazi Germany had them though. We’ve spent over a 100 years pushing power money and authority toward DC. And then diputing and wasting this immense pile of money, while the casino skims the vigorish off the national currency churn. Corruption is a direct consequence of the violation that is DC.

    Subsidiarity. A basic constitutional principle. Long forgotten. Read Strongtowns.org book for positive policy recommendations. Now read Mapping Decline, for a straightforward explanation of how concentrated power fails.

    Back to work!

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  24. Dragonheart says:

    You speak of adding NEW Gun laws, so exactly what new laws do you propose? Like so many utopian minded Liberals you are always looking for more ways to restrict or eliminate basic human rights, like the right of Self Defense. So you fail to address the most single important factor in our society, and that is THE PRESENT LAWS ON THE BOOKS ARE NOT BEING ENFORCED! We already have gun laws that would take many violent criminals off the streets, but liberal DA’s and Judges hand out a slap on the wrist if not allowing them to walk free. Let’s move on from guns and talk about murder, rape, robbery, theift, etc. Look at the tens of thousand of illegals that have been incarcerated and more roaming free, thumbing their nose at our laws. Why are these laws not being enforced and the greatest lack of enforcement is coming from places run and populated by liberals. I see it first hand as I live in one of those places.

  25. Ed Halo says:

    “Corruption” is an alternative method of conducting business (exchange of services for payment) and a natural occurring phenomena within any government system. Those who resort to this clandestine marketplace, actually increase the efficiency of a government system. One may say that it is “cutting the red tape,” in that it enables valuable time to be eliminated from completion of civic projects. It cannot be eliminated. Aggressive enforcement of laws/regulations would eventually create a “hidden hand” of an excessively unnavigable government system of control, which, in turn, establishes another form of institutionalized corruption. “If you cannot prevent it, control it.”

  26. Folks, if you’re talking about “the government” or “the people” in monolithic terms (as first four commenters have), you are recapitulating the problems Lessig is trying to address. Those words “government” and especially “the people” are abstractions, not real things we can affect, and change. They are easy targets to lampoon or get depressed and angry about. Using those terms moves us nowhere.

    What is real? In government, specific institutions set up for specific limited purposes are real, and they range from your county soil & water management district to housing and zoning boards in municipalities, or specific state or federal departments or the congress, etc. (these are USA examples obviously). For ‘people’, what is real are specific individuals and specific groups and they range from yourself as a voter, to an author like Lessig, to Brad Pitt and his Twitter feed pissing off Balsonaro, to the 1000s of various interest groups and yes businesses and corporations.

    Change in complex systems comes from anywhere, but more often from the edges, not the middle. And what is needed is not a best-practice, but an emergent practice,; i.e., novelty, or experimentation. In the U.S. at this moment, Andrew Yang for example is the most novel democratic candidate on the stage – not saying best or most qualified, just informed and bringing a creative re-frame – because he is coming from an edge; perhaps, a business/tech/asian, edge.

    Solutions to what ails us come from edge explorations, experiments and pilots in new forms of “representation” which is already starting. Modern corporations in fact are becoming something like municipalities in how they manage and serve their “citizens”/employees. New forms of representation are emerging in corporates. You may think this far fetched but something like Holocracy at Zappos is an example.

    We may be far too wedded to our notions of traditional institutions designed for a slower moving era, and perhaps we are unconsciously attempting to recreate forms that no longer suit us. To let go the rope, and make a leap into new forms of representative democracy is to start making the specific changes that can make a difference.

    I’m not a corporatist believing business will save us, or tech either for that matter. I’m saying experimentation in democracy, along with many converging exponential technologies are already fostering positive change in many places, even where you least expect it. Homeschooling families are experimenting with education, where public schools are not. I can go on.

    I’m saying we need forward-thinking people like Soros and their foundations to fund 1000s of experiments, and to network us ‘democratic scientists’ together for peer review, shared learning. TEDx could start a whole new branch of their brand with Poli-TEDx to help do the storytelling and make the whole thing go viral and global.

    Yes, we’re f*&^d, sure. But we’re also human. We’re creative. And we can do more than play our violins on the deck of the titanic while it goes down. Some of us are figuring out the lifeboats that will take us to new home shores.

  27. Bernard says:

    Remember when our great, noble President Trump came to office he promised that he would “Drain the Swamp” and that is what he is trying to do.

    So, we must remain focused and support our President.

  28. Jeroen Hellingman says:

    I’ve more and more become convinced that those who are eager for power are the least to be trusted with it, and that elections don’t work to get a representative “sample” of the population that mirrors, more or less, the general interest. Why not, as an alternative, have a yearly lottery to randomly select a couple of hundred persons from among everybody over 18 and below 75 for a one year stint as representative, complete with a nice pay-check, and a guaranty you can come back in your old job or continue your old business, and, once you’ve completed your “tour of duty” you’ll be exempt from future lotteries, although it should be pretty hard to get an exemption otherwise. — I think it would immediately increase the quality, intelligence, and integrity of the house. They would still have to work together with professional traditionally elected law-makers, but will have far less ties and vested interests.

  29. Timothy Henwood says:

    So Mr. Lessig uses three examples of non-movement (Climate Change, Government run healthcare, and “gun control” ) as if these are what “us” the citizens want. I could argue for days that these are all issues that are created, by the same ruling class he opposes, to further enslave us. The real issues are endless wars based on lies, the handover of our economy to foreign banks (the federal reserve)- who continue to impoverish us all with inflation and debt financing, and the intentional destruction of our minds and bodies to keep us sick, dumb and fearful. Know thy enemy and their means if you want to defeat them.

    Mr. Lessig has good points about the money in politics, but I fear only because they are going against his plans for “more” government.

  30. Governor Squid says:

    Has anybody considered the idea of simply shrinking the size and power of the federal government back to the limits that were supposed to be imposed in our founding documents? If we limited Washington to interstate/international trade agreements, the Mint, the Post Office, and the Navy, we could get rid of 90% of the Executive Branch, and nobody would care who was in Congress or the White House because they wouldn’t have power over every single facet of our daily lives.

  31. Jeff Barnard says:

    Don’t like how corporations run things? A corporation is a tool for making money. Tools have no ethics beyond serving their purpose.
    So, cost them money.
    Avoid war–they make money on war and the prison system.
    Be creative.
    Make new things.
    Political reform is lovely, but we must go beyond its limits as well. Politics has never been designed to empower the majority. Never, never, never.

  32. MidnightDStroyer says:

    Yes, being a US Citizen IS something similar (but not quite) a Public Office. “We the People who did ordain & establish…for ourselves & our posterity” this Constitutional Republic should also keep in mind that “Democracy (& any other form of the word) has not mention or inclusion in our country. Representation is a hallmark of a Republic (by definition), not a Democracy.
    Therefore, defending or upholding a Democracy in the USA is not only in violation of the official Oath of Office but it is also a direct violation of Article 4, Section 4. Why do we even allow for Democrats in our government is a mystery to me.

  33. Bruce Baskin says:

    While Congress is indeed a corrupt and perennial disappointment, its members DO represent us because WE elect them to their office. As such, we as voters bear the brunt of responsibility for putting these kinds of people in Washington. The USA is a republic whose leaders are placed in power by the voters…they don’t elect themselves.

    Want to change the cesspool that is D.C. culture? Demand better candidates from your respective party or, failing that, show the intestinal fortitude to vote for a third party candidate who reflects your point of view. In other words, don’t just complain about it…DO something about it and vote wisely. Otherwise, all the protests about how bad things are at the White House and in Congress are little more than empty words.

  34. Anarcissie says:

    The systems we live under did not fall upon us from the skies. We chose them, constructed them, supported them, made excuses for them. We still do. Thus, changing the structures of political and economic life top-down are unlikely to have much effect; since the new structures will be driven by the same cultures, the same desires, the same understandings as the old ones were. Rilke said, ‘You must change your life.’ _You_ must change _your_ life. _You_ singular and _you_ plural.

  35. Daniel Pfenniger says:

    What to do if a sizable fraction of the people is as amoral as the corrupt president they are willing to elect?

  36. Dorothy Mckujrig says:

    I’m all for Harvard professors standing for President. Ideally my President would be Atheist (a firm believer in the Big Bang, from which we all evolved), black (or a mix like Obama), female (born as such, or transgendered), and (this is a must) Gay. He/she would be able to educate the redneck/white trash elements of this country and lead them out of their trailer parks into a brave new world, where eating meat will be looked upon the same way as slavery is now. MacDonalds and Walmart for example, will be turned into Re-education Centers. Heterosexual relationships will be banned, not because of a heterophobic reason, but as a means of population control.

    To paraphrase a late, great person of color, “I have a dream that one day…” – a Harvard professor will become President.

  37. Sandy says:

    It took him 13 years to figure that out????
    Remember the movie “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” from 1979 with Alan Alda?

  38. https://nomomrniceguy.wordpress.com/2017/11/22/the-altered-states-of-america/

    There is a bigger picture most people aren’t seeing. The goal of the globalists and our enemies is the dismantling of our American Heritage, and there by the destruction of our identity as a nation. Removing historical monuments and statues is first. Removing the Anthem is next.

    Ultimately the goal is to remove the Constitution. If we continue to capitulate and give these social justice warriors and their globalist handlers what they want, then we will have given away our Republic. If allowed to continue then they will succeed in the dismantling of our culture and the removal of our heritage. This will leave us in chaos and primed for socialist governmental control, in other words we are quickly becoming the Altered States of America.

    The tactic is not new. It has been the game plan for a long time. We, those of us awake, are seeing this unfold right before our eyes. It is far deeper than what you see on the surface.

    Do not allow yourself to get to the point that you just become overwhelmed by the pressure. Do not give in. Letting things go is what got us here in the first place.

    When the weight is lifted from this societal pressure cooker we call culture, it will create a window of opportunity for humanity to take a great leap forward or for us to fall into another dark place and time.

  39. SOFTBENZ INFOSYS says:

    Corruption is the enemy of development, and of good governance. It must be got rid of. Both the government and the people at large must come together to achieve this national objective.
    Having read this I believed it was really enlightening. I appreciate
    you spending some time and effort to put this short article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time
    both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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  41. I’ve more and more become convinced that those who are eager for power are the least to be trusted with it, and that elections don’t work to get a representative “sample” of the population that mirrors, more or less, the general interest

  42. What to do if a sizable fraction of the people is as amoral as the corrupt president they are willing to elect?

  43. Divya says:

    Hy,
    I definitely enjoying every little bit of it. It is a great website and nice share. I want to thank you. Good job! You guys do a great blog, and have some great contents. Keep up the good work.

  44. Briteomatic says:

    The struggle of the people to create a government that represents the majority and not just a few (talking about True democracy) continues. A just government is needed that can make laws based on the principles of socio-economic justice.

  45. Lee Nolan says:

    After 2 years I still remain focused and support Trump President

  46. ox says:

    Wan to fix Democracy? Then get rid of the liberal commie democrats. If not, then on one has the right to complain, when the government becomes your new Constitution, and your liberties and freedoms are gone forever.

  47. It took him 13 years to figure that out????
    Remember the movie “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” from 1979 with Alan Alda?

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