Monday, December 10, 2007

The futility - and maybe the undesireability - of public financing

All seven justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court have signed a letter calling for public financing of judicial elections. I can sympathize. The need to raise money is one of the worst things about running for office and has been made worse - over the past thirty years - by campaign finance regulation. It used to be that a promising politician like Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern would capture the interest of someone like Herb Kohl or Jon Corzine to fund their campaigns.

But contribution limits forced candidates to fill their campaign bucket with a teaspoon, such that a candidate's pre-campaign notoriety and ability to dial for dollars control everything. Because you can't constitutionally prohibit people from spending their own money, now Kohl and Corzine (or Forbes), rather than support someone who actually has the skill set to be an effective public official, run themselves. Nothing against the rich guys, but you tell me which system was better.

One problem with public financing is that it is likely to be at a low level (particularly if it is voluntary), thus making challenges to incumbency even more difficult than they are now. Another is determining who qualifies. Set the threshold too low and it gets too expensive. Set it too high and the purpose is compromised, if not defeated.

But the largest problem is that you can't shut up people when their interests are at stake. Who is on the Wisconsin Supreme Court or in the Senate - matters a great deal. Focusing on judicial elections, to the extent that the Court feels itself relatively less constrained in the interpretation of constitutional and statutory language and, therefore, freer to do "what is right," it starts to look more like a political institution and people will treat it accordingly.

So if you prohibit people from giving to candidates, their dollars will move to independent expenditures. After the Supreme Court's ruling in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, it is unlikely that any law can constitutionally prohibit issue ads during an election.

I don't think that this is all the terrible. There seems to be plenty of money on both sides of the aisle. It's messy and imperfect but seems preferable to the suppression of speech.

But I want to be provocative. One of the dangers of democracy is that an unrestrained majoritarianism succumbs to demagoguery and a majority votes to pick the pockets of the minority. We have generally removed the constitutional constraints on this.

The founders, particularly Madison, felt that balancing factions against one another helped to secure liberty. Is there a sense in which allowing those with resources or an intense interest in the outcome to use those resources to get their message out serves as a hedge against the triumph of class envy and the associated destruction of the golden goose that is the free market?

Knock yourselves out.


Dad29 said...

Recognizing that the first casualty of battle is the truth, your question is Derrida-like.

But indy expenditures will continue.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great topic Rick. I still feel the core problem with our political system is the financing of our campaigns. Further legislation with some real teeth is needed to keep independent expenditures and issue ads like Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC out of the mix.

Currently we have a system that pits plutocrats against plutocrats. My vision of Madison has him rolling over in his grave with the knowledge of where his system has led. All of the power is in the hands of the people with access vast sums of money with us little guys stuck in the middle.

Taking all of the private money out of the system is the only way to ensure that the policies with the broadest appeal are implemented. If that leads to more populism, so be it. This is supposed to be a land governed for the people and by the people.

True finance reform is not going to lead to the downfall of capitalist America. If you have true faith in the free market you should be assured that it will still win out in the war of ideas, even when the battlefield is truly level.

Dad29 said...

3rd--be serious. WRTL, Pro-Life Wisconsin, are NOT "plutocrats." Their donations (my educated guess) average $100.00/person, at best.

Same with NRA. Annual membership is $35.00 (or a little less). Which "plutocrat" donated $35.00?

Anonymous said...

Organized labor are not plutocrats either, but when you lump these people into one big lobbying power house and organize them behind a candidate they have enormous power.

Organized labor and the gun lobby are too powerful and have too much sway over our political process. There is no powerful lobbying group for a regular everyday normal guy like me busting my hump in the private sector trying to put my kid through college, build up a 401K, pay off a mortgage and keep up with my property taxes. Special interests are running the show thanks to our campaign financing system.

Marcus Aurelius said...

It is my opinion quite a number of attempts at socialized campaign financing are simply attempts to muzzle one group or the other, be it the NRA or WEAC the underlying intentions are unconstitutional.

I do not quite understand those who argue in other venues saying the government has too much power in matters of security can flip in another forum and demand government take over the means of getting into government.

Also Thomas Jefferson once noted it was wicked to make men support causes they find evil or abhorrent. I wonder how Frederick Douglas would have found it supporting pro-slavery candidates.

In the end socialized campaign financing is intended to break up what Tocqueville noted as our tendency to form organizations for purposes great, small, and in between for all sorts of causes (helping the poor, promoting cheddar cheese, electing a given individual, etc). Funny thing is Tocqueville noted in France where you find the government here in the USA you will find a free association.