Election season approaches, filling the media with observations and predictions of the dire effects of “big” money on our political process. One can hardly avoid the claims that Citizen’s United is destroying democracy, SuperPACs are corrupting the process , or billionaires are using their vast wealth to change the laws. But is money really a problem in politics or is it a symptom of something more fundamental?
Ideas and knowledge are crucial elements in politics and the primary use of money in an election is to spread them. Money is spent to identify which issues are important to and resonate with voters and more is spent to tell voters how a candidate will address that issue. SuperPACs run television ads trumpeting the evils of the candidate they oppose and proclaiming the virtues of those they support. Newspapers print editorials and articles promoting the issues they feel are important while downplaying those they feel are not. Even those with little or no money contribute to spreading ideas via letters to the editor or creating blogs.
While political, as with any other type, ideas may be good or bad, true or false, one thing is certain: when it comes to either promulgating or restricting them, the government should have no role. History is replete with governments seeking to control ideas: the Catholic Church imprisoning Galileo for his anti-consensus view that the earth went around the sun, several states in the anti-bellum United States passing laws prohibiting the carrying of abolitionist literature through the mail (in fact similar legislation was attempted at the federal level) , or the government in Nazi Germany promulgating the idea of Aryan superiority. The truth or falsehood of these ideas was not relevant to the efforts to control them, but rather only the subjective beliefs and desires of those in power. In such a system, those who hold different views would be silenced as Socrates had been in ancient Athens. If you think this sort of extreme action is not possible today, look at recent articles by believers in the idea of catastrophic man-made global warming who advocate for “climate deniers,” who likely only have issues with the catastrophic and man-made parts, being jailed or subject to Nuremberg type trials for crimes against humanity. For their ideas.
While some bemoan the amount of money spent on elections, which is actually only about the same as is spent per year in the United States on chewing gum, there is no evidence that it has any significant effect on the outcome of elections. In Freakanomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner point out that in nearly 1000 congressional elections between 1972 and 2005 where the same candidates ran against each other in successive elections, the doubling of a losing candidate’s spending would only gain about 1% in votes while halving the winning candidate’s spending would only cost him 1% of the vote. Although it seems reasonable to look at elections and conclude that the candidate with the most money wins, this ignores the question of which way the causality goes. Does the winning candidate win because he receives more money or does he receive more money because he is seen as more likely to win. As the authors point out about people who are apt to donate money to a political campaign.
Chances are you’ll give the money in one of two situations: a close race, in which you think the money will influence the outcome; or a campaign in which one candidate is a sure winner and you would like to bask in reflected glory or receive some future in-kind consideration. The one candidate you won’t contribute to is a sure loser. (Just ask any presidential hopeful who bombs in Iowa and New Hampshire.) So front-runners and incumbents raise a lot more money than long shots.
The idea of “in-kind consideration” noted above is the one area of political spending that is of legitimate concern, although likely not for the reasons usually considered. More about that in part 2.