October 15, 2007  ·  Lessig

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I bought this book because I heard it described on the radio (NPR, no less) in a way that made it sound like the dumbest book of the decade. It turns out that it was the summary, and not the book, that was dumb. Indeed, this is a fantastic book by an extremely smart and experienced liberal. It is the first book on the Corruption Required Reading list.

A clue that there’s something interesting here is that here a liberal is arguing (among other great arguments) that the corporate income tax ought to be abolished (shareholders should pay that tax instead), and that corporations should not be giving health benefits to workers (the tax benefit is a huge skew to the economy, producing an inefficient and ineffective national health care system, costing close to $140 billion a year). Both sensible proposals signal that Reich is thinking, not simply rehearsing. And thought from a person as experienced as Reich, a Professor at Berkeley and Labor Secretary under Clinton, is critical to achieving the reform we need.

But the book will be on the required reading list for corruption because of the place corruption has in the argument. The basic arc of the argument is to first describe what Reich calls the “Not Quite Golden Age” in America, roughly the first half of the last century, when barriers to competition meant capitalism was relatively rich and big. Oligopoly defined the period; cooperation among big guys was the consequence.

This relatively quiet period for competition had some interesting consequences. (Big) business could afford to do socially helpful things (health care, etc.). Government could lean on them, and it was possible, because of the implicit protection of relatively weak competition, for them to give the government what it wanted.

We’ve now left the NQGA, Reich says, and entered a period of Supercapitalism — a time when competition has grown dramatically, and when half of us (meaning half of each of us, or at least half) more effectively demand lower prices in the product and service market place and higher returns in the investment market place. This hyper competition is forcing extraordinary rationalization in both markets. Wal-Marts and an exploding stock market are the consequence. The half of us that lives in the product/service and investment markets have been rewarded by this competition. Supercapitalism is producing super-efficiency, at least here.

The problem, from Reich’s (and my) perspective, is that the other half of us – the part that thinks not as an actor in a market, but as a citizen – has atrophied. That is, the half of us (again, of each of us – Reich’s point is that each of us has these two parts) that demands that government set sensible and efficient limits on private action has atrophied. Deep skepticism about government has made most of us turn away from it as a tool of sensible policy making. We instead (and this is a truly brilliant part of the book) turn to corporations to make good policy in government’s stead. We push for “corporate social responsibility” and praise corporations who agree to do the “good” thing, imagining that this means something other than the “money making” thing. This, Reich says, is “politics diverted” – trusting companies to do good policy rather than getting government to set good policy, imagining “corporate social responsibility” will produce something different from corporations maximizing profits.

This is a critically important point for people to get — and one that many good thinking souls don’t yet agree with. It’s related to an answer I gave to a great question by Jon Zittrain at the Corruption vAlpha lecture. As I said there, we need to understand the nature of the corporation — to make money — and come to love it, and yet, to keep it in its proper place, just as you can love a tiger, but know that it’s not the sort of thing that should play with your kid. (Here’s the question and answer). Corporations are not more efficient governments. They are instead increasingly efficient money making machines. And while there’s nothing at all wrong with money making machines — indeed, wealth and growth depends upon them — there is something fundamentally wrong with trusting these machines to restrain the drive for profits in the name of doing the right thing. The cushion that enabled that in the past (relatively limited competition) is gone. The job of GM is even more now to make money for GM.

Recognizing this point forces you to recognize how important it is that we make government work. It is government’s job to set the appropriate limits on corporations (and individuals) so that when corporations and individuals pursue their self-interest, they will not harm a public interest. If government were doing that sensibly, it would force carbon producers to internalize the negative externality of carbon (something our current government doesn’t do), just as it would force those who benefit from creative work to internalize the positive externality of creativity (something our current government is obsessed with doing).

And this leads to the link with the work on corruption: for notice (surprise!, surprise!), government is pretty good at forcing internalization when it benefits strong special interests (again, copyright), and not when it harms strong special interests (again, carbon). Here, and in a million contexts, the government is coopted by the powerful influence of powerful interests. Reich points to the obvious and well known examples of money buying (indirectly) influence. He also points nicely to the “corruption of knowledge” as he calls it, coming from corruption policy analysis. Nothing gets fixed till we fix these corruptions, powerfully identified in this very clearly and beautifully written book.

[Criticism? Only one small nit: Reich works hard to argue that we should not think of the corporation as a person. Corporations have no "corporeal form," he argues. A corporation instead is just a legal form for the activity of people. The law should therefore focus on those people, and not on this corporation. The corporation should therefore have no rights. It should also have no "corporate" responsibility. The only rights and responsibilities here are rights and responsibilities of people.

I agree that in lots of cases, the law should focus on the people, and not the corporation. But I reach that conclusion based upon the utility of focusing upon the people inside a corporation rather than upon the entity itself. In my view, however, there are times when it does make sense to think about the corporation as an entity and to allocate responsibility in that way. Reich concedes as much when it is civil liability at stake. But focusing on the non-thingness of a corporation, he rejects criminal liability for the corporation. I reject a thingness theory of criminal responsibility. My view is informed by the work of (in my view) one of the most brilliant members of the legal academy, Meir Dan-Cohen. His work is not online (not brilliant), but see, e.g., his Freedoms of Collective Speech, 79 Cal. L. Rev. 1229 (1991). ]

Buy (Amazon, B&N) or borrow this book soon. And thank you to Robert Reich.

  • http://burlap.pl burlap

    I don’t know the book, but from an interview with Reich I read in a Polish weekly and from this post (both with similar points), I know I’d like to read it. But even more, I would like to get Reich and Benkler to discuss these issues together. Somehow Benkler’s vision of “social production transforming markets and freedom” seems to be at least a solution, if not a very different vision to Reich’s. Do we have more of a citizen inside (in a networked public sphere) or less (under supercapitalism)?

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Yes, it’s very good, and I’d thought of it in this context before.

    Regarding: That is, the half of us (again, of each of us – Reich’s point is that each of us has these two parts) that demands that government set sensible and efficient limits on private action has atrophied. Deep skepticism about government has made most of us turn away from it as a tool of sensible policy making.

    Note this did not just happen one day, out the blue. It was fueled by many factors, quite a few which were quite deliberate actions by people with large amounts of money to destroy government limits that hindered them from making even larger amounts of money. And those same types of people are even now using the argument of “The Internet” to further destroy any limits!

    Please also keep in mind that quite a few people around you have as their professional lives, working on making sure remaining civic institutions are subservient to capitalist imperatives, and coming up with elaborate emotionally-appealing arguments as to why this really “democratization”.

    And, not meaning anyone in specific, I would say “peer production” is exactly one of these very manipulative arguments. It’s presented as a magic fix, which sucks in liberal intellectuals, since it’s utterly nonthreatening in any serious way (as in if you say “We need to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine”, then a horde of ranters will attack, but if you say “Citizen Journalism will do investigative reporting for free”, the most you’ll get is a few cranky fogeys writing contrary punditry, while a lot of people will be very happy to exploit the unpaid labor).

    Which leads me to say, I believe your exchange with Zittrain had a little bit of talking past each other. As I paraphrase it, at the end of his question, he was asking how *much* corporate reform would be involved, and you seemed to hear as if you were completely anti-corporate (and so you obvious answered you weren’t completely anti-corporate). But the key part was amount of work involved, not did you want to destroy corporations.

  • HH

    The Passion of Lawrence Lessig

    Professor Lessig has begun a journey from which he cannot honorably retreat, and this will lead to one or more moments of personal crisis. At some level, he must recognize that the corporations will strike back at him once it becomes clear that he intends to restrict their freedom of action. These are very smart tigers, and some of them have developed a taste for eating children. Professor Lessig’s Internet-based fences and barriers will displease the Tiger Corporations greatly.

    When the corporations come after Larry Lessig, they will do it with a vengance. They may get him thrown out of Stanford, which, like most universities, is ultimately run by cowardly fund raisers. They will attack him personally through proxies, and they will attempt to demonize him politically as a kind of Emmanuel Goldstein of the Academic Left.

    For Lawrence Lessig, there will be no Goldilocks middle path of meliorism, where effective change painlessly ensues, and everybody stays happy. The multinational corportions have become very comfortable running their host governments, and anyone who tries to take that power away will feel their wrath.

    Lessig’s willingness to enter this lion’s den is what will attract people to him. He is splendidly equipped as an intellectual, an advocate, and a scholar to be the tip of the spear that slays the plutocratic dragons fouling world society. Many are willing to lift this spear.

    Thomas Jefferson could have devoted a decade to drafting articulate letters and petitions to the British Crown addressing the amelioration of policy toward the colonies. He did not. Lessig can retreat to the safety of issuing mild exhortations for reform. I and many others are hoping that he will not.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    HH, that’s rather melodramatic. Noam Chomsky is orders of magnitude more critical of corporate power and activist against it (no offense), and he hasn’t been thrown out of his job (he does get a lot of character assassination, but Lessig gets that too). In fact, Lessig’s efforts to roll back copyright maximalism were very directly ruffling some tiger fur, far more than vague musing about the negative social effects of corporations.

    I think it far more likely Lessig would get drawn in by the little Snowballs (ala Animal Farm) who evangelize how building digital-sharecropping electronic plantations (sometimes eventually sold to some big media company!) is such a revolutionary movement.

  • HH

    It is a sad measure of the stunted political character our times that to think like a Founder is taboo. But Lessig is on a Jeffersonian trajectory, and he probably knows it. Chomsky was never dangerous, because he couldn’t build new structure, and he didn’t comprehend digital society. Lessig has a deep understanding of the digital world’s potential, and he is well situated to begin an activist movement. He has the right aim point, and he is heavily armed. The corporations will defend themselves vigorously against any structural reforms emanating from Lessig.

    I remain baffled by the reluctance of highly intelligent modern observers to grasp the potential magnitude of the political transformations that will result from the radical novelty of one billion people who are now effectively in continuous electronic communication all over the world. This development absolutely dwarfs the innovations of Gutenberg and the Encyclopedists. Yet commentary on the future of Internet society remains firmly focussed on consumer appliances and chitchat.

    Something new is trying to be born in world politics. The work of Larry Lessig may well have an important enabling role, but this will not be an easy birth. Once the global corporations grasp the likely infringements on their power, they will fight back furiously.

  • Yuval Langer

    We push for “corporate social responsibility” and praise corporations who agree to do the “good” thing, imagining that this means something other than the “money making” thing. This, Reich says, is “politics diverted” – trusting companies to do good policy rather than getting government to set good policy, imagining “corporate social responsibility” will produce something different from corporations maximizing profits.

    Sounds like the Separation of Powers principle they taught us in high-school. They also taught us that every sane democracy should work like that…

  • lucychili

    Thanks for the book ref
    Interesting conversations are happening around education, relativism, participation, voice.
    If people are free to participate directly, the fit for purpose conversation and the skills to
    negotiate clarity in free space become important.
    Also some questions about the mix of values in Scale v context and diversity
    j

  • Jardinero1

    What is corruption and what is not corruption are cultural constructs. A good example is the Chinese bureaucrat who was sentenced to death this summer for accepting bribes, whilst his bribers received no punishment whatsoever. It seems in China it is acceptable to offer bribes but not receive them. It makes no sense to me but then I am not Chinese. When I was an adolescent I had this discussion with my childhood nanny over which country was freer: the USA or her native Mexico. She forthrightly insisted that her country was freer because the police and the court system were for sale to the highest bidder. One would never be in trouble there if one knew the right people or had the resources to pay the right people. Many Mexicans feel that way. Go figure.

    I think it’s useful to review Prof . Lessig’s corruption principle and determine what he is for and against. I don’t think I agree with him over what is and what is not corruption. I am not sure what he is espousing is either efficacious, useful or even possible in the real world.

  • assman

    The assumption of Lessig is that the pursuit of self-interest will or may not be in the interest of the common good. Where common good is not defined. But what of this construction the common good? How does it relate to the individual good. Is there any relation? In my view it is a ghost, an evanescent object. It is completely undefined. It is just a religion. A god that we are supposed to worship instead of being greedy and selfish.

    Why should I believe in this concept the Common Good. Is there any proof that by pursuing the so-called Common Good we can actually do some good for individual people. Did Lawrence Lessig do some rigorous scientific research on this subject. Or is his believe just based on faith. If it is just a God he worships why does he expect anyone to subscribe to his religion? I don’t see the difference between the believe in the Common Good and the believe in God. No wait. I do see a difference. Worshipping God is at least constructing something human and understandable. Its basically an imaginary friend. But the common good is ridiculous! Its not a person, its some abstract thing. Why shouldn’t I just worship God.

    You fucking liberals are no different than the Christians. You just worship different Gods!

  • HH

    “Is there any proof that by pursuing the so-called Common Good we can actually do some good for individual people. “

    It is a marvel of our age that the most brazen attacks on common sense are now permissible, and that selfishness reigns unchallenged in the simple minds of many people. Yet if one looks beyond the end of one’s nose, one can see countless examples of the common good. The public Internet was constructed for the common good by researchers who were not aiming to enrich themselves and it has enabled a growing culture of altruism based on providing common goods. From Linux to Wikipedia, people serving the common good are gradually replenishing the world’s depleted social capital.

    Those who ignore the common good invite disaster, as was the case for the inhabitants of Easter Island, who selfishly deforested their remote habitat, causing the collapse of their civilization. The fellows who cut down the last trees on Easter island for their personal use were thinking just like the appropriately named poster on this thread, who calls the common good a “religion.”

    It is extreme selfishness that can be better compared to a dogmatic and destructive religion, since its adherents are blinded to any good outside their self-idolatry. The arguments of the cult of selfishness are best disposed of by giving their adherents a final push into the black hole of solipsism.

  • Jardinero1

    HH, your assertions about the internet and Easter Island have a high degree of “truthiness” but don’t stand up to the facts as we currently know them. “Social capital” is some kind of cultural construct which I beg you to define for the rest of us. Further even if such a thing can be defined and said to exist, I would like to know how it can be depleted.

    The material things which we hold dear and are requisite for survival were brought to us through someone’s self interest, not altruism. I am referring to such essentials as food, shelter, clothing, medicine, fuel, electricity, et al. The web, linux and wikipedia are provided only through the self interest of the telecoms who have invested in the infrastructure to deliver it to us.. Furthermore those apps are recent inventions and non-essential. I lump them with cable, satellite and pay-per-view. I don’t know anybody who couldn’t exist without them. In fact most of the world’s inhabitants do live without them.

  • HH

    Jardinero1:

    You dismiss my assertions without refuting them. Regarding the deforestation of Easter Island, you are silent. Regarding the PUBLIC Internet, you attempt to represent it as an emanation of private telecom organizations – a ridiculous claim, since they did not develop it’s fundamental structures, and it could easily be delivered by a government carrier, as it is in countries with government-run telecoms. The electronic media you lump together as non-essential are in fact the fulcrum of political power in the modern world, as Rupert Murdoch would be sure to tell you. Arguing that the public Internet is unimportant because it is non-essential is feeble indeed, since very few things are required for human beings to subsist, and we know that devotees of the Money-God are deeply interested in non-essentials.

    The notion of pro-bono invention makes Libertarians furious, because it is a stake through the heart of their Money-God arguments. But facts are stubborn things. The university-developed Internet is vastly superior to the crude patchwork of commercial timesharing services that preceded it, and the pro-bono WorldWide web technology has revolutionized free speech in the modern era, extending even to this humble blog, which puts your quaint views to the test.

    The Study of Social capital is a recent and important field. I refer you to Professor Putnam’s books (“Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy ” and “Bowling Alone”) and Francis Fukuyama’s “Trust” for definitions. For evidence of the contemporary depletion of social capital, you need look no further than a clump of Americans eating junk food in front of a television and debating which of their freedoms to surrender next to avert a terrorist attack.

    The greatest man of the ancient world sought the truth in the streets of Athens without monetary compensation The historical Jesus created a powerful new faith without monetary compensation. The Founders of the United States government created its institutions without monetary compensation. All these human works are non-essential, and I suppose that we could easily exist without them, but what would we be?

  • Jardinero1

    I refute your assertions about the internet and Easter Island because they are untrue. I can’t provide proof of a negative. The burden of proof is on you.

    I make a distinction between the internet as hardware and protocols such as FTP and HTTP. Universities didn’t create the internet although some universities created and promulgated some very popular protocols. The protocols only have meaning and worth because of the hardware. They would be worthless without the hardware. The fact that those protocols were given away does not mean that they would only have existed through altruism. You can be certain that the billions in hardware wouldn’t have existed but for some greedy self interest.

    So as not to seem the troll I will refrain from pursuing this thread any further. I would be pleased to let HH or anyone else have the final word.

  • HH

    I will indeed have the last word, and I will provide a definition of it:

    re·fute

    ri-ˈfyüt
    Function: transitive verb
    Inflected Form(s): re·fut·ed; re·fut·ing
    Etymology: Latin refutare to check, suppress, refute
    Date: 1545

    1 : to prove wrong by argument or evidence : show to be false or erroneous
    2 : to deny the truth or accuracy of

    When we attempt constructive discourse, we use definition 1 of refute. You seem to think that definition 2 is adequate and that you have acquitted yourself as a loyal soldier of selfishness by popping up on this blog and disparaging the common good, social capital, and pro-bono innovation.

    Easter Island is not a unique instance of the triumph of selfishness. Almost any chronicle of environmental pollution or destruction can be tied to unchecked greed and heedlessness of the common good. Destructive deforestation is proceeding in much of the world today, and the same selfishness motivates the individual woodcutter hacking firewood as the multinational corporation running fleets of bulldozers through the rainforests.

    The Earth is now presenting Libertarians with an awkward challenge: physical limits to population, pollution, resource extraction, and general selfishness. Rather than adopting notions of preserving the common good, some would prefer to play the zero sum game, with increasingly vicious struggles for dwindling resources.

    In an unexplored world in which man’s footprint is slight, boundless greed may be tolerable for a time, but that is not the world we live in. Fortunately, there are some people with the intelligence and foresight to think about creating more responsible and sustainable social structures. Professor Lessig is one of them. He does not wish to abolish greed, simply to confine it to a role in which it will not destroy us all.

    If there is a last word uttered by the very last man, it will be spoken by a selfish man.

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

    HH:

    “[The multinational corporations] may get [Lessig] thrown out of Stanford [...]“

    That’s OK. That’s what Canada is for. :)

    He can go join Henry.

  • Chris

    Reich recently gave a presentation on this book; check out audio, video, and a transcript here:

    http://www.sharedprosperity.org/av/20070914.html

  • assman

    “From Linux to Wikipedia, people serving the common good are gradually replenishing the world’s depleted social capital”

    Why do you assume that they are motivated by a desire to help the common good? Many of them just want make something cool or beautiful. Or learn about something. You do realize that a substantial portion of the people you are talking about are libertarians, e.g. Eric Raymond. And the guy who actually started the Wikipedia is an Objectivist. Objectivists believe that pursuit of self-interest is the greatest good. So haven’t you just refuted yourself. You have actually proven that the way to improve this thing you call the common good is by worshiping selfishness. Even I wouldn’t go that far.

  • assman

    “Regarding the PUBLIC Internet, you attempt to represent it as an emanation of private telecom organizations – a ridiculous claim, since they did not develop it’s fundamental structures, and it could easily be delivered by a government carrier, as it is in countries with government-run telecoms.”

    Wait one moment. The telecom companies were presented with many of the Internet technologies and they totally reject them. Why exactly didn’t competitors to the telecoms jump on the internet? Because telecoms are franchise monopolies and so they don’t have any competitors. Why are they franchise monopolies? Because in order to achieve universal service it was decided that it was easiest to have a monopoly. Why achieve universal service? Oh ya because of the stupid fucking common good. BTW, the internet problem is still not solved since the common good and universal service are still with us. If we had hyper-super duper hardcore jungle capitalism there would be no last mile problem.

  • HH

    “Why do you assume that they are motivated by a desire to help the common good?”

    When you attempt to shift the scoring system of selfishness from the money market to the market for esteem, you concede the argument against the public good. One does not gain esteem by harming the public interest. Unlike money, esteem cannot be collected forcibly. Thus the selfish aggrandizer of esteem must serve the public good. Now you may choose to split hairs and say that Eric Raymond doesn’t really want to help other people; he just wants to be praised by them, but this is a rather silly distinction: the resultant behaviors are equivalent.

    “If we had hyper-super duper hardcore jungle capitalism there would be no last mile problem”

    Yes, because there would be no last mile of connectivity to any remote location whose inhabitants couldn’t bear the full cost of commercial connectivity. I wish you money-worshippers could get your arguments straight. Telcos are free market players when it suits you and bumbling regulated bureaucracies when that is convenient. I will make it simple for you: the PUBLIC Internet operates pretty much the same all over the world, despite being delivered by a great variety of technical and societal means. The Internet is not the direct product of capitalism, because its origins are in the university research community. The researchers who created the foundations of the Internet followed a Rawlsian social philosophy, maximizing the benefit for all, irrespective of their ability to pay for the goods. They did this because experience has shown that it is wise to make knowledge broadly available, not just on an ability-to-pay basis.

    I understand that it is a hard thing to advocate jungle capitalism in the modern era, but you really should try for a semblance of logic in your arguments, especially on this blog, where the participants are not typical FOX News viewers.

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

    HH says:

    “They did this because experience has shown that it is wise to make knowledge broadly available, not just on an ability-to-pay basis.”

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that if we make access to published knowledge a privilege, we do so to the detriment of the greater good. Is this what you mean?

    If so, I agree with that argument.

  • HH

    Yes, enabling widespread access to knowledge is an obvious example of serving the public good. Note that when Benjamin Franklin proposed establishing the first public libraries, he encountered opposition from book publishers who complained about reduced sales. Franklin, and succeeding generations, rightly judged that the benefit to the public good outweighed the interests of the publishers. Some of our libertarian friends would declare that every book lent by a public library is a theft of property from the author and publisher. Fortunately, their views do not prevail. The reason there is so much animosity toward the public Internet and digital culture among the selfish is that it permits pro-bono acitivity of a novel and extensive nature. The Money-God worshippers intensely dislike anything that undermines the power of the Money-God.

  • Larry Brewer

    I find it so interesting how many people have no trust or confidence in ” corporations” or the people who work for them ie: your neighbors, friends or even family members but somehow have complete confidence in total strangers because they are government employees or worse yet politicans whom all have an agenda and are beholden to special interests no matter which side of the asile they are from. Government is not always the answer but many times the problem.
    Why we think someone who has never had any real world experience in anything but government or acadamia is an expert is beyond me, someone is elected to office then suddenly he or she is an expert on any subject you care to talk about, just doesnt make sense to me!.

  • http://www.newgreeneconomy.com Brian Gordon

    Larry Brewer: What are you on about? We may livein a digital age, but that doesn’t mean it’s an either/or world. Both governments and corporations can be corrupt, at the same time, even.

    HH: Very well-written rebuttals.

    I am beginning to wonder if the “tragedy of the commons” concept is a fiction invented after the rise of remote and concentrated power in order to make it seem like individuals can’t be trusted to cooperate in their own collective best interests. After all, what kind of person would destroy the commons in order to enrich himself? It speaks to character and a lack of respect for others.

  • Leo Lipelis

    HH: Well spoken. You are articulate and you reason very well without falling into any ideological extremes.

    To deny the existence of an altruistic drive in human beings is insane, and it even goes against what the latest scientific research is telling us about ourselves. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4766490.stm http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/

    I would go so far as to say that people who deny the healthiness and existence of altruism are not only insane, but they are psychopaths who are harming our society. They suffer from a form of dementia.

    It’s gotten to the point where sharing is now under a serious threat of being redefined as an immoral action. Sharing has been rightly taught to kids by the good moms and pops for generations, and now powerful financial interests are hell-bent on redefining something good as “evil” simply because it stands in the way of exorbitant and easy profits.

  • brooksfoe

    If we had hyper-super duper hardcore jungle capitalism there would be no last mile problem.

    True. In Somalia, there is no last mile problem.

  • François Rey

    If you’re interested in the weapons used by corruption then this article will be an interesting read:
    Anatomy of a Swat from a Lawyers Perspective
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0504/S00241.htm
    This was brought to my attention by Catherine Austin Fitts: http://www.solari.com/blog/?p=196

  • Jardinero1

    I’m gonna chime in again. Brooksfoe, you are right, there is no last mile problem in Somalia. Somalia is an interesting case study in statelessness. Try the following link for a counterintuitive analysis:

    http://www.mises.org/story/2701

    I would suggest that HH offers no analysis. He presents only platitudes, mis-statements of fact, a refusal to answer specific questions and deliberate mis-associations between certain posters on this blog and various schools of thought. Seeing virtue in self-interested behavior does not make one a libertarian or an anarchist, or anything else for that matter. Acting self interestedly does not preclude altruistic behavior. This is plainly evidenced in the business and corporate world by the enormous amount of volunteerism, charitable giving and philanthropy. Personally, I self-interestedly run an insurance agency, also I donate about twenty hours a month to some municipal business and various not-for-profits. Needless to say, I personally and intellectually resent these simpleminded either/or dichotomies where one is either altruistic and public-minded or one is a greedy blood-sucker. You can be both HH, Brian Gordan, et al.

  • HH

    “So as not to seem the troll I will refrain from pursuing this thread any further. I would be pleased to let HH or anyone else have the final word.”

    The final word is proving elusive, but I shall persist. Jardinero1 appears to be a somewhat confused person. He cites an article from the outer limits of anti-government ideology, in which Somalia is declared to be better off under primitive tribal rule than it would be with a functioning central government. The Von Mieses cult site he references features articles with titles like: “The Song That Is Irresistible: How the State Leads People to Their Own Destruction” But then Jardinero represents himself as a sensible and moderate individual. He believes in charity and generosity – as long as he is in full control. His personal mythology of independent pursuit of personal profit exists inside a massive US economy dominated by gigantic corporations, including the insurance underwriters on whom his living depends.

    What people like Jardinero1 dislike is political evolution beyond the tribe. The nation-state, with its power to tax and destroy, and its ability to give money to undeserving poor people is their great shibboleth. Thus they have an even more intense dislike of any notion of global governmental frameworks, like the schemes Professor Lessig may pursue. They appear to be blissfully unaware of the growing similarity between unaccountable global corporations and the monolithic nation states they oppose. The pursuit of profit is no protection against the evils of institutional corruption, as any scrutiny of Enron or Halliburton would reveal.

    It is perhaps the supreme irony of the triumph of the greed-is-good school that the institutions they champion, profit-seeking global mega-corporations, are developing many of the repressive and destructive behaviors of the governmental institutions that they revile.

  • Jardinero1

    “He presents only platitudes, mis-statements of fact, a refusal to answer specific questions and deliberate mis-associations between certain posters on this blog and various schools of thought.”

    Thank you HH, I rest my case.

  • Nathanael Nerode

    Jardinero1 appears not to have heard of “enlightened self-interest”.

    The “public good” is something which is in nearly everyone’s best interest, at least in the long run. That almost certainly includes *you*. Classic example: universal free vaccination. It’s worth your money, because by suppressing a contagious disease worldwide, it’s a disease *you* and your family never have to worry about catching again.

    The “public good” obviously exists. Ignoring the public good in favor of temporary private benefits is bad for almost everyone. Easter Island’s destruction is a classic, proven example.

    Altruism of the “volunteer” sort, done primarily to feel better about oneself, is irrelevant to the public good. What is *relevant* is things like this:

    While running an insurance company, you have two choices:
    (1) Be honest with your customers, while still making a decent profit
    (2) Cheat and lie to your customers, offering them policies they don’t need, which exclude every important risk, etc.

    In the short term, (2) *will* make you more money. In the long term, (1) is the right way to go, even if there’s no government regulation, *not just* because it’s right, but because eventually people will catch on, your reputation will collapse, people will avoid you, and may even retaliate.

    (1) is obviously the “public good” option.

  • HH

    “I rest my case.”

    Jardinero1 has a strange notion of discourse if he thinks he has made a “case,” but someone who quotes himself clearly suffers from a lack of argumentative resources. If he does wish to depart (again) from this discussion, I offer him a large farewell present, an enormous example of neglect of the public good:

    http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Moore-Trashed-PacificNov03.htm

    “…the scale of the phenomenon is astounding. I now believe plastic debris to be the most common surface feature of the world’s oceans. Because 40 percent of the oceans are classified as subtropical gyres, a fourth of the planet’s surface area has become an accumulator of floating plastic debris.”

    This is a monstrous result of unchecked profit-making selfishness, and it cannot be addressed by retreating into the primitivism of tribal society or the dogmas of super-capitalism. Collectively-devised world-wide regulation is required to defend the public good.

  • Jardinero1

    HH, still more platitudes and either/or dichotomies.

    “Jardinero1 appears not to have heard of “enlightened self-interest” Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t; I don’t know what that has to do with the rest of your case. Still, I agree with you, casewise.

  • HH

    Jardinero1 exhibits the increasingly common inability to distinguish between volleying and a tennis game. Simply hitting the disputative ball back over the discussion net is not argument. No matter how many times one lobs the term “platitudes,” it does not make a convincing argument.

    But Jardinero1 is not interested in exploring an issue or proving a point. He has the revealed truth firmly fixed in his mind and has come here simply to denounce those who might endanger the two great pillars of money and selfishness upon which his world view rests.

    Television and junk journalism have set the bar for discussion so low that Jardinero1 probably thinks he is actually contributing to a dialog by typing the blog equivalent of nyah! nyah! at regular intervals. On this blog, he is simply embarrassing himself.

  • Alex

    “there is something fundamentally wrong with trusting these machines (corporations) to restrain the drive for profits in the name of doing the right thing.”

    I have been reading your blog for years, and you are still writing really good stuff like this. Keep up the good work!

  • http://stuartbuck.blogspot.com Stuart Buck

    How careful is Reich’s book overall? I ask because of this.

  • http://www.beyondquotes.com Dan Luke

    Tiger tiger burning bright in the forest of the night…W. Blake

    HH–The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.,,you make it seem as if there is no hope…that corporations are simply too powerful to go up against. Where does that leave us?

    The truth is the pards in question are made of paper and not muscle and sinew. Am I the only one here who has watched the Wizard of Oz? I would recommed it before Reich’s book.

    To Lessig: Of course the singular drive for profit is constantly at odds with the public weal. But watch your arguments:

    “If government were doing that sensibly, it would force carbon producers to internalize the negative externality of carbon (something our current government doesn’t do), just as it would force those who benefit from creative work to internalize the positive externality of creativity (something our current government is obsessed with doing).”

    Not being a member of the intelligensia, I can only guess that this is an argument against the cap and trade system of offsets. What is wrong with it if, for the same amount of money I can reduce a greater amount of co2? If this is so, you may make a moral argument, but you won’t make a convincing practical or economic argument. The other part of the argument I’m not smart enough to understand–should choose different wording if possible if you want to be heard and understood by a wider audience.

    In your precis of Reich’s book, Mr. Lessig, you did not, as Blake might have said, “dare frame [the] fearful symmetry” (of the tiger). Why do we need to hobble it? How exactly does the profit motive interfere with the public weal? What does it do and how does it do it? Where does it sleep at night, how does it kill, what is its favorite prey? Does it really bother us, or only lambs? When we know better about all of these things perhaps we can devise a strategy.

    The argument that corporate power should be curbed is hackneyed. I need to know particulars. I, for one, deeply resent having to take a piss test every time I apply for a job. I regard that as a gross violation to say nothing of how it promulgates the so-called war on drugs, and the prison industrial complex. If urine today, blood tomorrow and then semen, and then DNA. Can we talk about this for a minute?

    I presume that the intellecuals that frequent this blog will automatically dismiss this as philistine (I’d still like to hear your arguments though). But this is the kind of thing that you can get people to care about. Challenging power is ultimately about getting people to care, so remember that. Otherwise whatever you want to do it is going to etnernally remain a discussion among academics and nothing more.

    To extend the metaphor, tiger’s are endangered. Tigers are no match for people with the right implements. So let’s get busy making the right implements.

    It would be extremely easy to do if people simply sat down and decided that they wanted to do it. I for one have plenty of suggestions. Let’s talk about what we want to do and how we’re going to do it. Let’s be creative and let’s have fun while doing it. 503-946-8389

  • http://beyondquotes.com Dan Luke

    HH,

    I made my last post after reading only Lessig’s post and only a few of the comments. Now that I’ve read the full thread, I would like to pay you a compliment. Your rhetoric is at once beautiful and devastating. Your comments are as elegant as they are trenchant. Still, I can’t help but wonder what might happen if you cast your pearls before something other than swine, so to speak. In the hope that I am casting my pearls before the proper entity, I would like to make some comments on what you have written, and ask a question or two as well.

    You write: “Thomas Jefferson could have devoted a decade to drafting articulate letters and petitions to the British Crown addressing the amelioration of policy toward the colonies. He did not. Lessig can retreat to the safety of issuing mild exhortations for reform. I and many others are hoping that he will not.”

    HH, have you ever read the Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare? He argues that Jefferson deeply distrusted centralized power and wanted to establish an agrarian idea. Yes, America is a more urban then rural society, but agrarian interests (The Red States) have grossly disproportionate power as a direct result of Jefferson’s ideas. We are now living in a version of his agrarian ideal. There is also the point to consider that had we remained part of England, we would now enjoy the benefits of a much more egalitarian society. Anyway, I would like to know more specifics about what you hope Lessig will do. By invoking Jefferson, if you were simply making the point that actions speak louder than words, I agree.

    I would like unpack this comment:

    “I remain baffled by the reluctance of highly intelligent modern observers to grasp the potential magnitude of the political transformations that will result from the radical novelty of one billion people who are now effectively in continuous electronic communication all over the world. This development absolutely dwarfs the innovations of Gutenberg and the Encyclopedists. Yet commentary on the future of Internet society remains firmly focused on consumer appliances and chitchat.”

    Well, have you considered that maybe the observers of which you speak aren’t so intelligent? And which observers are you talking about, exactly? And what difference does it make if they’re smart if they lack imagination and good will? By framing your question this way, (…highly intelligent modern observers…) I have to question the degree to which YOU grasp the potential magnitude of the political transformations that will result from the radical novelty of one billion people effectively in continuous communication all over the world. Don’t you get that you are now the highly intelligent modern observer of which you speak when you make intelligent comments in a public forum available to be read by billions of people? To whom else should we look? I mean, either it’s you or it isn’t. If you beg off, you contradict yourself. The shackles that currently bind us are ones which are mind-forged. They can be easily thrown off by thinking differently which I exhort you to do. At least allow me to attempt to explain how it might be done.

    Also, your comment seems to indicate that you are not aware of a certain fundamental truth that in other instances you have made reference to in the above exchange. Except for a few places on the internet, there is no meaningful public discourse. The intelligent public observers of which you speak are invariably mouthpieces for the high priests and priestesses of the cult of money lovers. They’re at the podium right now, and they sort of set the agenda for what gets talked about and how. Don’t expect them to start going on about how the internet, if used properly, could cause their annihilation. The only way that they can conceive of the greatness of the internet is by thinking about how it might be useful for making someone billions of dollars. That’s about it.

    The money-lovers are an absurd lot (as anyone who has read Richistan can attest) and we need to start bringing them to greater public ridicule. There are branches of social science already established which attempt to understand the causes and pathologies of poverty. That there is apparently no similar branch which attempts to understand the causes and pathologies of grotesque wealth might be viewed as a testament to the degree to which we are blind to it. But indeed it is a problem every bit as insidious as poverty and springs from various disturbances in human character.

    HH, you speak of money-lovers, but let me ask you–do you feel like you adequately understand from where the impulse to love money comes? I would posit that it is of piece with the impulse to love ice cream. In the presence of a virtually unlimited supply some people find it difficult not to over indulge which goes at least part way in explaining why there are so many fat people today. For all but a blip of human history, the only environment there was one of scarcity. There really was no need to devise an accumulation off-switch. Those who speak of the virtues of self-interest and greed are making reference, even if unwittingly to this important impulse. And I too agree that it has its place. But in the same way that a rat will continually inject itself with cocaine under certain lab conditions, we will just endlessly accumulate money and whatever. We need to examine and understand this impulse a little better.

    And unlike the accumulation of obscene weight, there is no social opprobrium reserved for those who accumulate obscene wealth. In fact we champion and celebrate those heifers who dwell in the outer reaches of plutocracy. Why should it be so?

    But if people bend to anything at all, it is to social pressure. There may be no way to eradicate the impulse to be become a heifer, but we can at least make it unfashionable to do so in the same way that we have made smoking cigarettes unfashionable. I mean, Imelda Marcos isn’t the only one who has accumulated 4,000 pairs of shoes (while many children around her died of starvation). To a certain extent, as argued by the notable Peter Singer, when you have a billion dollars in your bank account and people are dying because those funds are unspent, you are committing atrocities. (How’s that for something for some of you money-lovers out there to chew on?)

    Further, HH, declaring that the internet is big, great, and awesome, 300 X’s better than radio TV and the Gutenberg press combined doesn’t really amount to a whole lot. If only in some vague way, this is obvious to everyone by now. We need to start imagining what we want it to do and how we want it to do it. I mean very specific ideas. I have plenty of ideas that I will be happy to share. If you are willing to indulge me, I hope that you and others bring the precision and force of your intellect to these ideas I have so that they may be annealed in some fashion.

    You write also this:

    “This is a monstrous result of unchecked profit-making selfishness, and it cannot be addressed by retreating into the primitivism of tribal society or the dogmas of super-capitalism. Collectively-devised world-wide regulation is required to defend the public good.”

    That’s spot on.

    To those who defend capitalism, I have a question. Isn’t it at least apparent that capitalism and the market are two different and very contradictory things even if they are essentially though of as being more or less same things? Capitalism wants profit and nothing else. But profit suffers from competition, which is why most major companies put in a lot of effort in destroying a true market. Additionally, why should the government be restricted from coming to the market? Exactly how are we to view it as triumph of the market that Americans pay more for slower corporate provided internet access and connectivity than do residents of many countries where the government has stepped in? And what is so bad about government anyway? Theoretically it is all WE have to resist the depredations of power. One can’t really hold the idea of democracy and weak government (excluded from the market) up at the same time.

    In conclusion, though I have spent a great deal of time writing this post, I’m rather sick of writing. There needs to be a call to action. HH, as I’ve said, you make terrific arguments. If you know of a cause that needs joining, let me know where to sign up. I’m happy to do any kind of work. If not, I encourage you to join my cause. I don’t want to spend another minute writing essays. I am eager to take action NOW. If anyone’s interested in devising a plan, let me know. 503-946-8389

  • http://notthemessiah.net Dean Jansen

    I picked this up after reading your review and am in the middle of it right now. It has been incredibly engaging read, thus far… I’m looking forward to finishing it up.

    Thanks for the recommendation :)

  • assman

    “To those who defend capitalism, I have a question. Isn’t it at least apparent that capitalism and the market are two different and very contradictory things even if they are essentially though of as being more or less same things? Capitalism wants profit and nothing else. But profit suffers from competition, which is why most major companies put in a lot of effort in destroying a true market. Additionally, why should the government be restricted from coming to the market? Exactly how are we to view it as triumph of the market that Americans pay more for slower corporate provided internet access and connectivity than do residents of many countries where the government has stepped in? And what is so bad about government anyway? Theoretically it is all WE have to resist the depredations of power. One can’t really hold the idea of democracy and weak government (excluded from the market) up at the same time.”

    Depends what exactly you define the market as. Why no government because government is a monopoly. Have competitive governments (anarchocapitalism) and then there is no problem.

    Is democracy compatible with capitalism? Actually a better question is, is anything other than capitalism compatible with democracy. Capitalism and democracy have always coexisted. Is weak government compatible with democracy. Sure. Why not? Again historically American government was weaker than it is now and America was democratic so why shouldn’ t the two be compatible

    BTW, it is correct that in Somalia there is no last mile problem.

  • oliver

    We don’t need to see corporations as people to see how and in what way we might require them to behave “fairly” as opposed to “morally.” Fairness requires that the same rules and constraints apply to all competitors, and that no competitor cheats. It’s competition between corporations (and other forms of business entity) for market share that efficiently supplies us goods and services at a reasonable cost, so it behooves us to have laws, enforcement and penalties such as are necessary to make it a real and pure competition–that is, a fair one.

    “government is pretty good at forcing internalization when it benefits strong special interests (again, copyright),”

    “Pretty good?” I guess you know best. But it’s private and often personally financed litigation that enforces the internalization, and at least sometimes the little guy needs to sue a corporation for the little guy to internalize anything, and surely all the time the corporations know this.

  • oliver

    Sorry: I overlooked the “strong special interest” clause when I question how good a job government does at internalizing creativity.

  • oliver

    I might have mentioned: The principle of fair competition implies that corporations effectively have certain duties toward people–such as truth in advertising, honoring guarantees, and maybe reasonably guarding against harms through defect (but hence the calls for tort reform) etc.–because any corporation that disobeys these psuedo-duties will enjoy an advantage over competitors in the market that conform to them. Why should we expect any to conform? Maybe because under the rule of law, language and perhaps other means of representation between legal entities needs to be sacrosanct. Unless the corporation uses an emoticon, so we know it’s only joking ;-) Something along those lines maybe? Corporations communicate with people, and people are liable to understand these communications according to people principles…even though by now we can recognize ads and commercials and know that what the supermodel says about the fat-free cookie in such a context isn’t what she thinks or what she’d tell us to our faces, and is probably far from the truth besides. Free speech is a constitutional right of persons, after all, not corporations,

  • http://thoughtsfromid.blogspot.com Mikko Särelä

    I personally was a little bit sceptical of the book at first glance. Normally, I would have put it squarely in the leftist camp of idiotic free-market system opponents (which is not to say that all of them are such, but that I would have put this book in that camp). But being recommended by Lawrence, and as essential for corruption, I decided to give it a try.

    I was not surprised that I did not agree with the author on what values we should have government state (e.g. I oppose minimum wage, etc.), but I was surprised, to my great joy and shame, that his analysis of what has happened during the past decades was very accurate and told in a way that enabled me to understand something new. I also agree with him that we do have a problem and that we should find ways to make politics a democratic institution of public policy. Not a battle-ground for corporations that seek to maximize their profits (I don’t see anything wrong with maximising profits, but see something wrong, when public policy is hijacked for this purpose). And I also agree that his ideas on how to proceed are better than any I have seen before.

    The situation we are in, reminds me, in a scary way, of the times of roman republic, in which, after conquests had brought huge properties to certain families/parties, the boundaries of private profit, military action, and public policy slowly vanished, until at the end all were the same under the rule of an emperor. The ultimate outcome of the game for bigger and bigger profits at the expense of all else.

    So thank you for recommending this book. I shall await your next recommendation with anticipation. We have a problem we need to solve while we still have time. Hopefully, we still have time.

  • Dave Jobson

    I agree with Robert Reich’s suggested solution of democratic capitalism including the elimination of corporate tax and corporate lobbying etc. but will it be enough? There is still a problem and that is that consumers and investors who are also voters will form political parties that will advocate for what they see as personally advantageous. Wealthy individuals will join political parties that prefer low personal income taxes, no social welfare and will not regulate in any way that would reduce corporate profits. Parties which do advocate for more social responsibility will have difficulty getting elected. The pro corporate profit party is more likely to be successful in attaining power and the result will not be much different than what we have now.

  • http://www.thehelpbook.net www.thehelpbook.net

    Really excellent position, surely note your understanding on the topic. This is the first time I go, but I assure you will not be the final, I hope everybody who reads this I believe the identical.