Tim: Now you’ve certainly been involved in things that are very political in nature before. You can think of the Creative Commons as having a lot of political implications. You’ve also described “law as code”—where does this fit in? I think you’ve called this “trying to change the operating system.” Can you explain a little bit about where the analogy falls when you talk about how much this sort of change affects everything else?
Larry: Yeah. I mean, I was pushed to do this, by Aaron, by Aaron Swartz. Seven years ago he came to me and he said, “How are you going to make any progress on the internet issues, or the corporate issues, until we fix this corruption?” So what I recognized at that point was: All these other issues that as passionately as I cared about them, they were not going to get solved or addressed until we solved this issue. So this is fundamental. In the sense, it is the operating system. Because this democracy depends upon this operating system functioning in a way that is reliable and encourages people to participate in it. Now once you begin to think about that analogy, there is a lot that connects to the internet community. There is a great piece by Noam Scheiber in ‘The New Republic’ that basically says why Silicon Valley should care about this issue. He makes the point this is both metaphorically and actually the network neutrality debate. It is actually a network neutrality debate, because what we realize is: Unless we can deal with the money in politics problem, we are never going to have enough resources to step up and take on the cable companies and things like that. That is not the interesting point. The interesting point is: What we need is a democracy on the same model as a neutral network, right? We want a democracy that is in some sense is end to end—it is allowing people, all the people to participate in selecting the things they want. It is trying to disable the kind of entities in the middle that have the capacity to block or control how things are developing. And so, in that sense, I think that this project is fundamental to, is analogous to the work that I have always been doing in the context of internet politics. But even if it weren’t, the thing that is absolute is that: People have got to recognize that if we don’t fix this, we don’t fix anything. And we’ve got a whole slew of things that have to be fixed.
Tim: Are there any countries in the world right now that have a system that is, in your mind, close to what you are proposing? I don’t know of any countries that for instance use a voucher system to let people express what they believe in that way—I am wondering: Is there any place or country or two that actually does something like this?
Larry: Well, most other mature democracies are different in two really important ways: 1) They are parliaments. 2) They don’t have a First Amendment the way we do. Because they are parliaments, elections are not regular. So there is not a permanent campaign, there is a time when they govern, and the majority party actually can govern, and then there is an election. The election could be six weeks or two months or something like that. That’s a really important difference. And number two, no other country has interpreted their free speech provision to be as restrictive as our Supreme Court has interpreted ours. So what those two constraints mean is there won’t be any country that has something precisely analogous to what we have. But here’s the thing that every other successful democracy has, that we need—the members of parliament, or the members of those congresses do not spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money from the tiniest fraction of the 1% in those countries. In parliaments, I spoke in the Swedish parliament about Creative Commons, but I also talked about this issue. A member of parliament came up to me—in fact, he was a geek, he was a free software coder, he worked on the GNU Linux kernel, the Linux kernel, and he said to me, “In my eight years in parliament, I’ve never, literally never once asked anybody for money. Never. That’s just not what we do.” It kind of struck me, as a shocking idea. Imagine a congress filled with people who are not constantly thinking, “What does that rich fat cat want me to do so that he or she is going to fund my campaign so that I can get back into getting into power?” It seems impossible to Americans to imagine a different system. But the reality is no other democracy comes close to the craziness of this system. And it is completely trivially possible to create this alternative. If we had a voucher system, that would cost $3 to $4 billion a year. Now the Cato Institute the libertarian think tank estimates that last year the amount of corporate welfare the United States government spent was $100 billion. So if we could spend $3 to $4 billion a year, and cut that corporate welfare by 10%, we would have paid for it two to three times over, right? So this is a trivial problem to solve from a financial perspective. But it would radically change the incentives of our government to be answering to these crazy extreme crony capitalist like demands or to the bailout demands. Whatever your complaint is, it would refuse, it would remove those kinds of crazy constraints.
Tim: I think a lot of people might object in the same way that they do that they fail to check the boxes as they contribute to the electoral campaign on taxes, and say, “I will support it if I want, but I don’t want to be required to give money to anyone else’s campaign systematically. I don’t want to be part of it.”
Larry: Yeah. That’s a great great concern. And that’s why I really personally favor vouchers. The presidential campaign fund is basically a system where the federal government decides how much money each candidate gets and then writes them a check. And people aren't happy with this, right? We say, “Hey, why is my money being used to subsidize speech I don’t believe in?”, “And why does the federal government get to decide how much people get to spend on a political campaign? It seems just wrong.” Now the voucher system is fundamentally different. What a voucher system says is we are going to rebate the first, in my proposal, $50 of your taxes in the form of a voucher. And then you can use that voucher—either tear it up if you want—but you can use that voucher to find candidates who agree to fund their campaigns with small dollar vouchers and maybe contributions up to $100.
Tim: They are not using the Federal Election Commission as a sort of intermediary in that way, like the current checkoff vote?
Larry: Exactly. You, the individual, are choosing who gets the money. And it is your money you are giving to them, right? Well, people say, “No, no it is tax money you are getting back.” Now you got to embrace your inner tea party—“What do you mean tax money? It is my money. The government had it, it is giving it back to me. And I’m taking that money and I’m giving it to the candidate I care about.” And everybody else is doing the same thing. So nobody is subsidizing anything. There is no government bureaucrat who is deciding how much anybody gets. There is no equality norm that says everybody gets the same amount—it is just like voting. But instead of my resource being a ballot, my resource is a voucher. It is exactly the same idea but now extended to the funding of campaigns as well as to the selecting of a candidate.
Tim: Let me ask one more question that may also be about people’s inner tea party here: The biggest comparison people have drawn in our comments is, they say there is this effort called the Wolf PAC, and that is aiming for constitutional as opposed to legislative reform. Can you briefly distinguish why it is that you are going for something slightly different? They also have in mind fairness of elections, and fairness of the way they are paid for, but you’ve decided that constitutional reform directly is not the way to start.
Larry: So I love Wolf PAC. I work with Wolf PAC. I flung myself to every corner to the country to testify on Wolf PAC’s behalf in favor of the call that Wolf PAC is making for state legislators to vote to demand Congress created Article 5 convention—I am all for that. But we’ve got to move on a number of different fronts at the same time. Even if we got a constitutional change tomorrow that said that Congress had the power to limit the amount of money that was given to Super PACs or something like that, we still would need to pass a law to change the way elections are funded. The Supreme Court has no doubt made this problem much worse. But even if the Court had gotten every decision right, we still would have a system where the tiniest fraction of the 1% funds campaigns. So nothing we are doing is against Wolf PAC. I support Wolf PAC. But we’ve got to both change the statutory regime that makes it possible for us to have citizen funded elections where everybody is funding elections, not just the tiniest fraction of the 1%, and also back-stop that change with whatever constitutional reform as necessary. That’s why the plan that we’ve set up is four steps. The fourth step is: After we’ve got a Congress that is elected under the right way, pass the kind of constitutional reforms that is necessary to preserve the changes that we had enacted through legislation.
Tim: Do you see any irony in Super PAC with the stated goal of removing the sort of influence that Super PACs have had?
Larry: Yeah. It’s ironic. Our slogan is “Embrace the Irony”. But it is not anything more than ironic. Because if you think of the history of reforms that have made this a more just democracy, you know there was a time when only white males could vote. And a bunch of people thought, “That’s unjust.” So they brought about an amendment that in theory at least (it took a hundred years before this was relevant) but in theory at least, that blacks could vote too. Of course, it was only black males. But there it was—blacks could vote too. Now when they did that, they used an unjust system to produce a more just system. If somebody had said, “Why do you want to use this unjust system to give blacks the right to vote?” I would have said, “Oh yeah, why not? Let’s use whatever we can to get a more just system.” The same thing when women did not have the right to vote. And then men, pushed on by women of course, but men said, “Okay, let’s change the law to give women the right to vote.” That was an unjust system being used to create a more unjust system. So too here. My view is: A system that allows people to contribute unlimited amounts of money to Super PACs is an unjust system—we need to change it. But we are going to change it using the system that exists. We are going to use whatever legal means we can to bring about a more just system. And when we get to that more just system, people will be able to create PACs, independent PACs too—they just won’t be able to contribute unlimited amounts to these PACs. Because that system produces a world like what we saw in 2012, where 132 people contributed 60% of the money spent by these Super PACs. So we need to create changes. We are going to do that in every legal way we can, including by employing this unjust device to produce a more just system.