In “Republic, Lost” Lawrence Lessig — a Harvard Law School professor and a leading advocate of applying the principles of open Web access to less technical forms of creative expression, like music, writing, and the visual arts — makes an extraordinary leap of faith.
There is, in his view, one thing holding back America, a legal but corrupt system of campaign finance. “Practically every important issue in American politics today is tied to this ‘one issue,’ ” he writes. Mr. Lessig’s agenda (invoking Thoreau) is to attack “the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first.”
Existing campaign finance reforms, particularly donor disclosure and contribution limits, have done as much harm as good, leading to “a corruption practiced by decent people” and legitimizing what Mr. Lessig calls “a gift economy.” Disclosure of the identities of contributors has made the venal routine. The system “normalizes dependence,” Mr. Lessig writes. “There’s is no shame in the dance.”
Mr. Lessig’s vision is at once profoundly pessimistic — the integrity of the nation is collapsing under the best of intentions — and deeply optimistic. Simple legislative surgery, he says, can put the nation back on the path to greatness.
His solution is to create an alternative campaign-finance system; alternative because Supreme Court rulings, most especially the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, make it difficult to regulate the current system, which permits unlimited corporate and independent expenditures in support of candidates for federal office.
Under Mr. Lessig’s proposed plan every voting-age adult would receive a $50 voucher from the federal government (an idea similar to the “patriot dollars” advocated by the Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman and colleagues in 2003) that could only be used to contribute to qualified candidates for federal office. To be eligible, the candidate would agree to finance his or her campaign entirely with vouchers and private contributions of $100 or less from individuals in the candidate’s home state.
In Mr. Lessig’s view this system would be so attractive to candidates that it would crowd out the existing corrupt system, with no need to impose prohibitions or restrictions that conservatives view as violating free speech. He also estimates it would raise as much or more money than currently floods into campaigns.
His strongest argument undermines conservative demands for the complete deregulation of campaign finance. A system with no restraints empowers “capitalists to corrupt capitalism,” he contends. “So long as wealth can be used to leverage political power, wealth will be used to leverage political power to protect itself” against free market competition — the very system capitalists are pledged to support.
There is strong evidence of the corrupting effects of political fund-raising, and Mr. Lessig has amassed it. In a November interview with Boston Review he noted that in the first quarter of 2011 Congress — awash in special interest money from banks attempting to push through a bill allowing them to collect per-transaction debit-card fees — spent more time on that issue than on unemployment, the deficit, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care or global warming.
“There is not one congressman who decided to run for Congress because he thought, ‘I’m going to deal with the problem of the banks’ swipe fees,’ “ Mr. Lessig explained in the interview. “It’s only because if you can dance as a congressman with a little bit of uncertainty of which side you’re going to come down on in this controversy, millions of dollars gets showered down upon you because there’s $19 billion on the table depending on how this issue is resolved.”
Mr. Lessig’s analysis of the distorting effects of money is, in the main, dead on. The problems with “Republic, Lost” lie elsewhere. While he insists, again quoting Thoreau, that to hack at the “branches of evil” is futile, campaign finance reform is, in itself, arguably an inadequate ax.
With billions of dollars at stake, corporations — and powerful interests in general — have consistently found ways both to avoid and evade obstacles. Those with power have an unbroken record of finding ways to navigate around reform laws or turn regulatory standards to their own advantage.
For example, the primary users of the Freedom of Information Act are not journalists and crusaders seeking to reveal illicit activities; they are businesses seeking to find out what government regulators are up to and what their competitors have disclosed to government agencies.
Similarly, Congressional reforms requiring publicly recorded committee votes are not of most use to the news media or constituents; they help lobbyists verify whether targeted officials have lived up to their promises to vote for or against major amendments.
Mr. Lessig’s $50 voucher system could theoretically be used to gain corrupt advantage. Heavily regulated big companies already specialize in amassing employee contributions into “bundles” for influential members of Congress. What is to prevent bundling on an even larger scale using new employee vouchers?
The unlikelihood of success has not deterred Mr. Lessig, and he deserves respect for his determination. In his career to date he has tackled the government’s “Neanderthal policy” toward regulation of the Internet and has argued for an overhaul of the copyright system in a digital environment.
The underlying rationale for his shift of focus, from digital freedom to the power of money in politics, can be seen in Congress this week. The House Judiciary Committee is preparing legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act, for approval by the full House. The measure is a setback for Mr. Lessig and others opposed to what they consider the suppression of free speech on the Internet.
More important, however — and regardless of the outcome — the legislative battle has not been a struggle to determine what is in the best public interest, but rather a titanic war of special interests.
On one side are office holders beholden to the deep-pocketed donors whose profits depend on open Internet access, like Google, Oracle and other Silicon Valley tech giants (along with less obvious allies like civil-liberties and human-rights groups). On the other side are House and Senate members beholden to campaign contributors like the powerful content providers NBC, Fox, Disney, music companies, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon — as well as the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Breaking the dependence of Congress on special-interest contributions, Mr. Lessig maintains, would give first priority to citizens and secondary consideration to the claims of corporate and trade association lobbyists in just such important discussions.
While he has stepped away from the digital debate, he has remained committed to the least cynical path, a commitment increasingly rare and one to be valued.

Thomas B. Edsall, an online columnist for The New York Times’s Campaign Stops blog, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of the coming book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.”