Professor Lawrence Lessig is a reputable name in the United States for his struggle against governmental corruption and his commitment in Internet issues. Lundagård had the opportunity to talk to him about his connections to Lund, student activism and the Back to the Future actor Christopher Lloyd.
In your book Republic, lost from 2011, you state that “there is a feeling today among many Americans that we might not make it”. But with regards to students, do you find that students’ perception of politics and the government generally are bleaker today than what it was during your first years in college?
“Yeah, much bleaker. And more dangerously so, because in addition to being incredibly pessimistic about politics, they are wildly over-optimistic about the ability to solve the problems that the government is supposed to solve without the government. They think that “hey, we can set up a website, that’ll solve all over problems”. Or they think that they can create social movements on Facebook, Instagram or whatever, that’ll solve all their problems. And I think that’s wrong, we need government for certain kinds of problems, even though it cannot solve every problem.”
But overall, you think that we overestimate the power of social media?
“Yeah. But I mean, social media is powerful for lots of things. If talking about creating the next pop icon, then it’s a great forum for that. But social media is not going to change climate change; social media is not going to create a health-care that’s meaningful, and it cannot deal with student loan depts. So the point is that people have to see that there is an essential need for a functioning government. And they need to do something to create that.”
As the director of the Edmund d. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, do you think that universities have a responsibility to initiate and engage in debates concerning ethics and moral issues with their students?
“I think they do, at least in certain moments in history. I think that this is one of those moments when we need to have an academy, which is structurally the most independent source of authority of our culture. Structurally, because obviously rich people are independent, they don’t work for anybody, but businessmen, lawyers, people in companies, and so on – they are not independent, and they are not able to say what they believe without fear of retaliation. So, in some sense the academy is the one place where it’s not only rich people who have some kind of independence to say what they think is true, and as academics, I think that we have an obligation to do just that.”
Before you started studying law, you graduated in philosophy at Cambridge University. Would you recommend the law students of Lund University to apply for a couple of courses in that field?
“I don’t know if I would say that, I kind of view myself as a recovered philosopher. My last obsession of philosophy was Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the basic message of him is that there’s no thing called philosophy; it’s just a bunch of different problems that we have constructed. So, the natural stage for Wittgenstein philosophers is to leave philosophy, like I did.”
What part do you think students have to play in the struggle against corruption all over the world?
“You know, it’s incredibly important to recognize how ordinary life corrupts people when they get older. Not in a criminal sense, but, you know, the least idealistic people in the world are like fifty year old men. Because they just see their lives and the compromises they’ve made and they begin to rationalize their compromises. And the people who do that the least are kids. When you’re eighteen and you look at your country and you think that “what the hell”, that’s an enormous energy and potential, and every single successful social movement has to depend upon that. Thus, I guess that we just have to get them when they’re young, because it’s basically only when you’re young that you still truly believe there’s a way to live life according to ideals.”
In May 2014, you launched a crowd-funded political action committee with the purpose of electing candidates to Congress who would pass a campaign finance reform. What was the outcome of that?
“Well, one part was a great success, but another part was a big failure. We raised an unbelievable amount of money, more than eleven million dollars, our goal was twelve, so we were close to hitting our target. But we learned that in the middle of these highly partisan campaigns, it’s almost impossible to get above the din, enough to win elections that will convince people to vote and to care about his issue. But a few days ago, we launched a new campaign which is focused on in 2016 to recruit members in Congress to sign up for fundamental reform, so that we can get close to a majority. If we would come close to that, then it would become more feasible to imagine that we can form a social movement that can really get us to a majority.”
You describe yourself as a liberal, but when you were young, you were a member of the Republican Party and a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan. Do you have anything left of that young Republican in you?
“Yeah, I mean, I was a libertarian, and I still think of myself as fundamentally focused on how to create conditions for liberty. But growing is the process of understanding that liberty is not just given, you need a society to provide that. So education and security and concern about equality are essential in order to give people liberty. So I’m still staunchly in favour of free speech and the opportunity to innovate, and minimal governmental interference of those dimensions, unless there is a really compelling reason for doing so. But I also support massively higher taxes than we have today, I support public schools that are actually equivalent to private alternatives, and health systems that are actually delivering health at a cheap cost, so in that sense, I’m a democrat.”
You’re a doctor of honour at the department of Law at Lund University, how did that come about?
“I don’t know, they just send me a letter and asked me to receive this doctorate. And I was of course honoured. I had spoken here a year before, so I guess that’s how people got to know me. But yeah, it was exciting.”
Has it changed your life in any way?
“Haha, well, I brought my five-year old, and we still talk a lot about that trip, so I guess it changed my life in that respect.”
You have been portrayed by Christopher Lloyd in the best TV drama ever produced (West Wing). What’s the history behind that?
“One of my students was a writer for the West Wing, and he based the episode on a lecture I had given on how to change the Constitution. Originally, they had cast someone who was my age but then nobody thought that was believable, so they went for Christopher Lloyd instead.”
So, if you would have picked an actor to play you by yourself, who would you have picked?
“Christopher Lloyd, of course!”