An Average American Perspective

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If you know who Lawrence Lessig is you will probably agree with me that he has proven himself to be much more intelligent than the average American citizen. If you don’t know who he is then you’ll have to take my word for it. I read an interview he did for National Review Online and I think that in explaining his personal political view he has captured the essence of the political views of any average American.

I think we’ve got to recognize that the way the system has functioned is to insinuate regulation in all sorts of places that aren’t necessary in order to fuel this political machine of fundraising. There’s this great speech of Ronald Reagan’s in 1965 where he talks about how every democracy fails, because once people realize they can vote themselves premiums, that’s what they’re going to do, and they’ll bankrupt the nation. Well, he had it half right, in the sense there’s a system where people realize they can vote themselves the benefits and destroy the economy. But it’s not the poor who gathered together and created massive force in Washington to distribute income to them. It’s this weird cabal of politicians and special-interest insiders that have achieved this effect. Basically, they can pervert the economy and growth in ways that protect and benefit certain interests.

I’ve read National Review from the age of twelve. I’m a liberal Democrat and I’m proud to be called a liberal Democrat. But the core values that true National Review people talk about in this regulatory context are ones that I understand and in many contexts would wholeheartedly endorse. . .

For example, one of the things that I think is outrageous about what’s happened in the recent past is that most of the kind of distortions that I would point to and say, “We’ve got to fix this,” are distortions that were shifting wealth and benefits to the richest in our society. I’m not talking about tax cuts — that’s a totally separate issue. I’m just talking about regulatory and fiscal structures, successful efforts to shift wealth from the middle to the top.

I find that wrong. And responsibility in my view is that those who are wealthiest, in the strongest position, shouldn’t be using their power to further benefit themselves, using their power over government to benefit themselves. At a minimum, they should bear the burden as much as anybody else and more than that, they should take the view that their responsibility is to make sure the worst off in society have some opportunity. And that means taking care of education, making sure public education functions in the way it is intended to function, and to make sure that health-care systems function in the way that is most efficient. All of these things are the focus of the Democrats right now. I think can be understood as extensions of what it means to be responsible members of society. . .

I’m not apologizing that I believe there is a role for the state. But I am going to say that you have to structure it so that it’s not captured by special interests and being perverted from a minimally intrusive, efficient regulation necessary into a protect-the-most-powerful-class-against-competition regulation.

I think if you look across the history of regulation, you get this time after time. Look at copyright regulation. It is a massive invasion in the innovative process that has been pushed and extended by special interests inside Washington, who have done nothing more than try to use government to protect their business models against new forms of competition. And I think you can see this in a hundred different areas.

I don’t think a liberal should shy away from saying we understand government gets captured. That’s a truth that political scientists have taught us from the day FDR went to Washington — we should learn from that and we should try to respond to that not by saying, therefore there shouldn’t be government. I think in places there ought to be government, but by being really clear to get rid of regulations of government where they’re not serving anything except special interests that happen to have the power to get them into place. (emphasis mine)

I would boil this all down to “there is a place for government regulation in various aspects of society but we must be very vigilant to stop the natural tendency for those regulatory efforts to become warped and corrupted.” I would also emphasize the fact that it is the responsibility of the wealthiest, those in the strongest position as Lessig stated, to do what they can to ensure that those who are the worst off have the opportunity to improve themselves through education and that they have access to basic services such as food, shelter, and health care services.

Note that it is not the responsibility of government to force the wealthy and strong to do this. Note also that it is implied that it is the responsibility of those in the worst situations to take the opportunities available to them. They must be free to shun those opportunities (because sometimes they will).

I believe that the only thing that really divides most average Americans are how much they do or don’t believe the two notes I have listed. This is a far cry from the efforts of Newt Gingrich with his poll derived Platform of the American People – this is just common sense articulated by an uncommon man.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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9 Responses to An Average American Perspective

  1. Reach Upward says:

    Lessig demonstrates a belief in something that sounds good, but has never and can never be. He thinks we can figure out how to run government completely altruistically. Wouldn’t that be nice.

    But the reality of human nature is that as long as we’re in a telestial mode, people are going to generally act out of self interest and people that are motivated by power are going to use government to expand that power.

    Lessig’s welfare-state utopia isn’t going to exist anytime in this sphere any more than the USSR, China, and Cuba became socialist utopian societies. The answer IS less government.

  2. David says:

    I don’t think he’s working for a welfare state. I think he is arguing that no regulation at all is often too extreme. Lessig has very publicly been working to reform copyright and patents so that those systems promote the value of innovation and creativity rather than stifling competition. He’s trying to walk the fine line of saying – we don’t want to abolish copyrights, but we do want to reduce copyright term and make a playing field more favorable to newcomers rather than providing a protectionist atmosphere for established players like Disney and BMG.

    If Lessig is arguing for any kind of welfare state (utopian or otherwise) then that is where he and I diverge.

  3. Cameron says:

    It seems to me though, that what Lessig is arguing for is only “good” regulation. He doesn’t like that government has come in and put these regulations in place that really only help the big, established players in the economy.

    If I understand Reach correctly, he’s saying that “good regulation” might exist, but that it’s the nature of people, and the nature of government to overstep what is good in pursuit of what helps themselves. As government has gotten larger and has inserted itself into the economy more and more, business has inserted itself into government and is taking advantage. That is why he advocates smaller government and fewer regulations.

    If government had less power, business wouldn’t try so hard to control it.

  4. David says:

    You really make a good point at the end there Cameron.

    I think that Lessig acknowledged the point that both of you have made as he said “I don’t think a liberal should shy away from saying we understand government gets captured. That’s a truth . . . and we should try to respond to that . . . by being really clear to get rid of regulations of government where they’re not serving anything except special interests that happen to have the power to get them into place.”

  5. Hyrum says:

    I agree with what you all have discussed in the comments. I don’t, however, agree with the assertion that the rich have any more responsibility than the rest of us to fund government and thereby make sure people get equal opportunity to excel.

    I believe in the concept of providing equal opportunity to every citizen, such that those who can excel will be able to do so. I just don’t think a ‘soak the rich’ approach does it – for three reasons:
    1) The ‘rich’ are often the small business owners who retain the assets of the business on their own balance sheet and taxes. Taxing these people as ‘rich’ merely ignores that their money is already in use and is not really all theirs – it belongs to the business and only shows up on their taxes through an artifact of tax law.
    2) Making the rich pay an extra portion simply means that the government is used to make the other guy pay more than you – a form of legitimized armed robbery. It’s not legitimate, because it’s not an uniformly leavied burden on all citizens.
    3) The rich (excludin the small business owners discussed above) often sponsor innovations, in the form of paying the high prices for initial products such that initial devlopment costs for the product can be recovered and the rest of us can affort it as well. As such sponsors, we may ridicule them for some of the things they acquire, but we certainly couldn’t have a widespread product like the Garmin travel advisors or cell phones without them. Large budgets are necessary for initial acquisition of this stuff – and the rich person’s personal budget is often what starts a product down the road to reasonable prices for the rest of us.

    All citizens should bear their own proportional share (on a percentage of income basis). Because I believe the laws of the country ought to be blind to income level, race, religion, etc., I suppord the flat tax or consumption tax models (although I prefer the consumption tax).

    As for Lssig, I generally think he’s a good guy and I’d be interested to see his policy proposals.

  6. Hyrum says:

    Instead of saying “All citizens should bear their own proportional share (on a percentage of income basis).” I meant to say “All citizens should bear their own uniformly leavied share of the government burden.”

  7. David says:


    I don’t know if you feel that it was Lessig or me who suggested that the rich had more responsibility to fund government to make sure that people have equal opportunity. As I review what I posted it does sound like I was saying that the rich did have a greater responsibility to make sure that people have equal opportunity. (Note that there was no mention of using government to do that.)

    I would clarify my position by saying that I think all people have the responsibility “to do what they can to ensure that those who are the worst off have the opportunity to improve themselves.” (Again, no implication that government should be the vehicle.) The only difference between the very rich and everyone else is that the rich generally have more capacity to help others.

    On your last comment – I would say that having people bear a uniform share of the government burden is generally good, but there are probably some government services that we could have people pay for based on their use rather than based on a equal division of costs (for example, the post office already does this).

  8. Reach Upward says:

    And we do. There are hoards of user fees for various uses of public resources. But whenever this occurs, there are cries that the “disadvantaged” are exlucded. That is why we are so reluctant to use privately funded toll roads as part of the solution to traffic congestion.

    I’m with Hyrum on the thought that we have to be very careful on defining the “rich” as having more public responsibility than others. The “rich” are arguably performing a service by using their resources far more efficiently than could government — in ways that produce more jobs and general prosperity simply by acting in their own interests.

    For that reason, I could buy into a consumption tax instead of an income tax. But, as I have said before, I do not view that as a politically viable pursuit at present.

  9. David says:

    I fully agree with you about the consumption tax – good idea, not currently politically viable. In fact, I almost said that in my previous comment, but I backed off to the “some government services” position that I posted.

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