Matthew Burton

Lessig, selfless candidates, Feynman, etc…

The first draft of my most recent essay had a big chunk on politicians: running for office was the final of three suggestions I made to people who want to reform our government. I removed that chunk, but with PDF 12 hours away, I figured I’d post it anyway, as its own little musing. So here it is:


“Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, `What are you going to do about the farm question?’ And he knows right away – bang, bang, bang. Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. `What are you going to do about the farm problem?’ `Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me to be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use…’

“Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think. It’s never been tried, anyway. This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.”

This is how Richard Feynman explained modern politicking in a 1969 lecture. I often quote this passage, because I think it describes our ideal candidate: someone who puts time into making decisions, who gathers facts before doing so, who doesn’t make false promises in exchange for votes.

That’s why I was excited to see Larry Lessig consider a Congressional bid. But my first reaction wasn’t positive: Is that really the best place for him? He wouldn’t really fit in, and his ideas would fall on deaf ears. Eventually, I got it: not fitting in is exactly the point. The most fundamental way to change Congress is to populate it with a new breed. While Lessig would have been very lonely during his first term, his run would have inspired others among us to do the same, and slowly, the tide would turn.

Lessig decided not to run; thankfully, it was not because he felt Congress was the wrong place for him. I believe that it is, and that his decision not to run makes him an even better fit for the job. Congress needs more people who think about running and decide against it. Such a person is ambitious and passionate, but also humble. Such a person thinks things through and makes prudent decisions, without regard for celebrity or public perception.

If I were to suggest a more long-term goal for Lessig’s new Change Congress campaign, it would be to transform the public’s idea of what constitutes a good public leader: I would replace charisma with gravitas, expedience with prudence, celebrity with humility. I’ve noticed the latter qualities in many of the people I work around—many of them have scientific backgrounds and cannot avoid making wise decisions in spite of themselves. I know it would be hard for them to leave their research-grounded jobs in hard science for the daily life of a politician, and even harder for the average voter to become acquainted with their style. So I’m not expecting this to happen soon. But if we’ve quintupled the number of scientists in Congress by 2016 (there are currently four), I think we’ll be on our way.

Categories: Ideas & Thoughts

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  1. Here at PDF and thrilled to be running into good thinkers! Couldn’t agree more that a candidate who employs a well thought out “process” for decision making will be a better leader but unfortunately often not a better candidate within a voting population looking for simple “answers.”

    No simple solution to this dilemna jumps out but it may be that improving the “process” of voter participation, particularly on the local level will kindle a greater understanding of the difficulties a leader faces.

    Moreover, implementing clearer and stronger lines of opinion/motivation between voters and politicians will provide an easier path for the leader who currently must deal with an imbalanced system of influence.

    A voter more involved with decision making himself… will feel a greater responsibility, and hopefully take a closer look at the complexities of an issue. I believe it may be that when there is a greater distance between leader and citizen (whether that distance is physical, psychological, economic or whatever) the citizen is more likely to embrace simplistic or even fantastical “solutions”.

    I believe what I’m developing (CHAGORA) may be of assistance. But there are risks… to empower people who have felt so disconnected for such a long time is a scary thing. However… looking to “small group” decision making, you find greater engagement and capacity for appreciation and willingness to deal with suptleties.
    Capability enables Responsibility!
    Tom Crowl

  2. While the components of a citizen’s “Opinion” on any given subject may be varied and either logical or illogical…. and likely both,

    The structure of the system(s) through which those opinions are determined and implemented in a representative government are primarily engineering questions (though those systems may have been created through a political process)

    In that sense, both the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and other such documents here or elsewhere are actually attempts to “engineer” for good government.

    In complex systems (a nation) as the social environment changes… the need to address systems of both opinion/motivation as well as implementation will need constant attention. CHAGORA is part of that effort.


    • A complex system is any system involving multiple interlocking feedback mechanisms. The corollary: they are inherently (mathematically) chaotic.

    • Systems with chaotic elements are always to a degree unstable and unpredictable.

    • This is not a preventable situation. And so there can be no stasis… there is always change.

    • Further, theoretically, ALL complex, chaotic systems eventually collapse.

    • Systems can be modified so that theoretical collapse is extended to a point beyond the useful life of the system rendering the issue moot. But it will be a constantly evolving and changing system.

    • As complex GOVERNING systems experience inevitable stresses (swings away from the theoretical point of balance) modifications can be made to these systems to assist in stabilization before these “swings” turn into wars, revolutions, famines, inquisitions, jihads and all the other insanities man engages in.

    Tom Crowl

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    • Rafa,lo que nos traes hoy es más indignación,más rabia y más dolor.Cada día que pasa más me reafirmo en mi solidaridad con la víctimas franquistas(y no sólo porque el caso me pille más de cerca)Si esta justicia que padecemos no es capaz de sentar en el banquillo a aquellos que queden vivos y que cometieron toda clase de tropelías(siendo muy indulgente),debemos denunciarlo publicamente.Alguien nos leerá y sabrá del desgarro que el franquismo produjo.Salud y República

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