Big Money and Campaign Funding


Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Constitutional scholar (like President Obama once was), is leading a march against corruption, by which he means the inordinate influence of Big Money on Congress. In an interview to Bill Moyers, Lessig says:

“The solution is to change the way we fund elections by supporting small dollar-funded elections so that instead of the 1/20th of one percent, they raise money from the vast majority of Americans to spread out the funder influence, just like we spread out the vote. That would change the way we fund elections and radically change the way Congress works.”

As well-intentioned as the people following Lessig may be, and as well-intentioned as Lessig himself may be, their proposed solution to the problem of Big Money power in the United States is wrongheaded. It is wrongheaded because it purports to solve the problem at its root, but in fact leaves the root of the problem unchanged. The root of the problem of Big Money’s undue influence on elected politicians is not the manner in which political campaigns are funded. The root of the problem is the fact that wealth in our society is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Our society is one in which money is power and most people have little or none. This remains true no matter what the laws are regarding campaign funding. Our entire capitalist society is based on the principle that individuals can own vast amounts of wealth as their private property (or as the private property of a corporation obliged legally to enrich its private owners.) Our society is based on the principle that the few can be vastly wealthier than the many.

Vast wealth in our society confers vast power to the few: the power to threaten the public that if it doesn’t give a corporation a huge tax break then it will relocate to Mexico or China; the power to tell a politician that if he or she threatens the interests of Big Money then he or she will be portrayed in the mass media as “not serious” or “reckless” or “irresponsible” or otherwise be character assassinated; the power to reward an obedient politician (or his or her family members and friends) with lucrative jobs; and other powers that ordinary people such as you and I aren’t even savvy enough to think of but which our billionaires and their paid “smart guys” surely employ routinely.

For every law purporting to “get Big Money out of politics” (and there have been lots already) there are a thousand and one ways that Big Money gets around the law to exert its overwhelming influence on our government and our society. High powered “think tanks” (such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institute, the Committe for Economic Development, etc.) funded by Big Money set government policy. Wealthy people sit on the boards of trustees of the most influential universities and ensure that the ideas and policies that emerge from them are acceptable to Big Money.* The Big Money owners of the mass media slant the news coverage (and the pundit babble) to make the public draw the conclusions Big Money wants them to draw, never the opposite.

To think that a campaign finance law will stop Big Money from having inordinate power over our government and our whole society is as wrongheaded as to think that building a dam will prevent the water in a river from reaching the sea.

Lawrence Lessig, for all his academic smarts, is wrongheaded. He tells Bill Moyers:

“This is a much easier problem than some of the really hard problems that the 20th century struggled with and solved. When you think about racism or sexism or homophobia, those are not problems which you can just solve overnight. You don’t just wake up one day no longer a racist. It takes years, generations to rip that pathology out of the DNA of a society. But this is a problem of just changing incentives. If we change the incentives for fundraising, campaigns would change overnight.”

Why is an apparently smart man like Lessig so wrongheaded? There are three possible answers that come to mind: 1) He’s deliberately misleading people to protect the very rich. 2) He’s sincere but not very smart. 3) He excludes from consideration any solution that he believes is unrealistic, in particular the actual solution, which is to remove the rich from power and create an egalitarian society with no rich and no poor.

I cannot, of course, read Lessig’s mind, but let’s assume the third answer above is the reason he pursues his wrongheaded approach. I make this assumption because the third reason is the one that, even if it doesn’t explain Lessig’s actions, does probably explain why lots of regular people follow Lessig’s wrongheaded leadership. The third explanation is illustrated by the story of a man who lost the key to his car and searches for it under a street light even though he knows he dropped it elsewhere, because “the light’s better under the streetlight.” People are drawn to what they consider to be “realistic” solutions the way that man was drawn to the well-lit area to search for his key. No matter how inadequate a solution is, it looks a whole lot better than the actual solution if one thinks the former is realistic and the latter is not.

-the writer is editor of


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