And Now for Something Completely Different

For your weekend pleasure, we offer some outside the box thinking on campaign finance reform.

From the Volokh Conspiracy Steven Landsburg, author of a pair of wonderful books, The Armchair Economist and Fair Play, puts forth a provocative proposition: "The problem with democracy is not that politicians kowtow to financiers and lobbyists; it’s that politicians kowtow to their own consituents, spending other people’s money along the way.  In other words, their incentives are all wrong. Effective reform should supply better incentives."

We’re not sure we’d endorse all of Landsberg’s ideas, (though we like this one: "I want federal income tax rates determined separately in each congressional district, as a function of how much spending your congressman has voted for. The more he votes to spend, the more you pay in taxes. That should solve the problem of voters who pay little attention to what their representatives are up to."  Might also solve the earmarking problem.)  But more generally, Landsberg, in his usually provocative way, is driving at a bigger point, which is that campaign finance reform is trying to deal with symptoms of a much larger problem.  In Federalist #10, Madison argues that their are two solutions to the cause of faction: one is to limit freedom, a game Madison says is not worth the candle; the other is to set up a government structure that limits the ability of special interests to use the government for personal gain.  Taking the second route, Madison and the Constitutional Convention designed a government with limited, enumerated powers; with three branches with separate powers; and with a strong federalist system.  We have over many years gradually kicked away those props – by stretching the Commerce Clause of the Constitution beyond recognition, and by abandoning meaningful review of economic regulation, the Supreme Court has allowed the Federal government all but unlimited power; through a huge bureaucracy, which often mixes legislative authority (drafting rules with the force of law), executive authority (administration and prosecution of the law), and judicial authority (ruling on violations); and through an erosion of federalism that now has the states operating as little more than provinces of the Federal government.  This destruction of structural impediments to special interest power has created the dilemma of "undue influence."  The answer of the "reform communnity" – which for the most part favors big government – is not to restore these structural safeguards, but to do exactly what Madison said we should not do, which is to limit freedom.  Unfortunately, besides invading our freedoms, this probably makes the problem of special influence worse,

Meanwhile, Michael Kinsley complains that so much press attention is paid to fund raising.  To this Justin Fox replies, "The solution here is so simple: We just have to keep campaign finance data secret. Then candidates would worry far less about how much money they’d raised, and would spend far less time trying to raise it."

It is worth considering whether or not disclosure, with the ensuing focus on the sources of and amounts raised, has elevated or lowered the quality of political debate, and helped or hindered voters trying to understand the issues and learn what the candidates really propose to do.


The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.