Lawrence Lessig - Institutional Corruption

The first Edmond J. Safra Lab seminar of the 2011-12 academic year was led by Professor Lawrence Lessig. Participants discussed a chapter from Lessig’s book, “Republic, Lost”, and debated the distinctions between the degrees of influence that should (or should not) be of concern when considering the problem of institutional corruption.

Lessig opened the seminar with a brief description of “dependence” corruption as a subset of institutional corruption. Dependence corruption results from a general influence, which weakens the effectiveness of an institution, while also weakening public trust in that institution. An analogy might be the magnetic deviation of a compass: the force that causes the compass to deviate is unseen, but it is clear that the compass is tracking something other than magnetic north. As Lessig points out, our current Congress evinces this type of corruption. Rather than being properly dependent on the people, members of Congress are dependent on their funders, and this dependency is reflected in their policies.

Lessig went on to outline three degrees of influence: money that is given to an individual; money that is given to an entity for which an individual raises money; and money given to an entity with which an individual is affiliated. He noted that the first two types of influence should warrant the most concern in relation to the issue of institutional corruption.

Several participants questioned whether other influences, such as a desire for prestige, should be considered in addition to money. However, while money may not be the only possible corrupting influence, Lessig noted the importance of focusing on the types of resources (money being the most obvious) that may be strategically deployed to distort the mission of an organization.

Other participants noted that it may be easy to theoretically create an ideal system that would seemingly eliminate a particular influence, but that it might be more difficult to figure out how to keep that influence from resurfacing somewhere down the line.

Ultimately, as Lessig pointed out, the purpose of the Lab is to isolate the different costs that institutional reform would entail, and attempt to discern the most cost-effective solution. In some areas the reforms seem clear. In the case of Congress, public funding of congressional elections would be a simple solution. However, with other institutions, such as the pharmaceutical industry, simple solutions are not so immediately apparent.

The seminar concluded with participants considering how remedies might vary depending on certain characteristics (size of institution, type of corruption, etc.) and how taking inventory of such characteristics may provide new insight on the problem of institutional corruption and how to address it.