“There is not a single American awake to the world who is comfortable with the way things are.”
So begins Lawrence Lessig’s sweeping indictment of contemporary American institutions and the corruption that besets them. We can all see it—from the selling of Congress to special interests to the corporate capture of the academy. Something is wrong. It’s getting worse.
And it’s our fault. What Lessig shows, brilliantly and persuasively, is that we can’t blame the problems of contemporary American life on bad people, as our discourse all too often tends to do. Rather, he explains, “We have allowed core institutions of America’s economic, social, and political life to become corrupted. Not by evil souls, but by good souls. Not through crime, but through compromise.” Every one of us, every day, making the modest compromises that seem necessary to keep moving along, is contributing to the rot at the core of American civic life. Through case studies of Congress, finance, the academy, the media, and the law, Lessig shows how institutions are drawn away from higher purposes and toward money, power, quick rewards—the first steps to corruption.
Lessig knows that a charge so broad should not be levied lightly, and that our instinct will be to resist it. So he brings copious, damning detail gleaned from years of research, building a case that is all but incontrovertible: America is on the wrong path. If we don’t acknowledge our own part in that, and act now to change it, we will hand our children a less perfect union than we were given. It will be a long struggle. This book represents the first steps.
In this provocative analysis, Harvard Law professor Lessig expands upon a series of lectures on "institutional corruption": the notion that the presence of good people inside an institution is not a guarantee of it serving its intended purpose effectively and fairly. He asks readers to move beyond simplistically viewing ethics as "the project of naming the good and the right so as to rally us against the wrong." He insists that the "greatest harm in our society" comes from the "moderately rich," who enable evil by making and tolerating compromises in a variety of professions, including psychiatry and the academy, in pursuit of financial rewards. Lessig also argues that the profit motive has led private credit-rating agencies to shade their conclusions to maintain their clientele, the need to fund campaigns has resulted in undue political influence for donors, and individuals making practical financial decisions participate in these compromised systems. Lessig judiciously uses specifics to buttress his case, as when he reports that bank swipe-fees the amount retailers pay when customers use debit cards dominated Congress's floor and committee time in 2011 "because it was lucrative for congressmen's campaigns." This treatise is a conversation-starter, not a guide to solutions; readers interested in those will find a more detailed and action-oriented analysis in Steven Brill's Tailspin.