Arnold Kling  

Public Financing of Political Campaigns

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Jonathan Chait writes,


Do Kling and Schulz think that interest groups can have that much influence over the outcomes of elections -- so much influence that the Democrats will have a near lock on power? If so, shouldn't they support public financing or other very tough reforms to limit the political power of economic elites?

No, but thanks for playing.

As I recall, "earmarks" are $18 billion. What are they other than publicly financed political contributions? But my guess is that this greatly under-estimates the amount of spending that is made purely for re-election purposes.

As a solution for the problem of entrenched political power, "public financing" and "tough reforms" are fox-in-charge-of-the-henhouse ideas. Ultimately, campaign reform gives you government of the incumbents, by the incumbents, for the incumbents.

The traditional libertarian solution for corrupt government is Constitutional restrictions on government activity. Smaller government means smaller scope for corruption.

I am not sure I believe that the traditional libertarian solution works. I suspect that what really makes for limited government is the opportunity for exit. In the early 1800's, it was possible for an American to pick up and move to a remote area where government had very little impact. That possibility tended to limit the power of the central government.

I think that the big challenge for libertarians is to create conditions that enable people to exit from overbearing government. Patri Friedman's idea is seasteading. I am a skeptic on that one.

I think we need to boost the organizations of civil society that compete with government: private schools, private firms, charities, neighborhood associations, and groups that supply public goods using the "open source" model. The term "civil societarian" is one that I coined, at least according to Wikipedia, which is itself an example of an open-source public good.

A key to averting the loss of civil society is to overcome the progressive ideology championed by Chait. That ideology amounts to an all-out assault on civil society. Picture civil society as a nice lawn, and picture government as a weed. As the weed grows, the lawn gets wiped out. Civil Societarianism is the ideology that tries to grow the lawn. Progressivism is the ideology that tries to grow the weed.

Progressive campaign reform serves to shrink the ability to form competitive political organizations. It is yet another technique for killing the lawn.

UPDATE: Nick recommends a speech by Carl Schramm. Nick has most of the excerpts that are relevant to this thread.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



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The author at Let A Thousand Nations Bloom in a related article titled Civil Society – An Island Of Grass In A Sea Of Weeds writes:
    Arnold Kling writes: The traditional libertarian solution for corrupt government is Constitutional restrictions on government activity. Smaller government means smaller scope for corruption. I am not sure I believe that the traditional libertarian sol... [Tracked on May 27, 2009 1:23 PM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
Greg writes:

One man's weed is another man's lawn. Where you see civil institutions, especially firms and neighborhood associations, I see interest groups that add to the sclerosis of government rather than limit it. You can't have a rent-granting politician without a rent-seeking constituent, and firms are the prime candidates. In fact, there are more checks and balances on politicians because there are competing candidates eager to use appearances of impropriety as campaign fodder. Firms are subject to much less oversight. And as I found in my MBA class on business and government, firms explicitly devote substantial resources to gaming the system.

This is one of my big beefs with libertarians (and conservatives). They posit some sort of utopian firm that isn't rent-seeking, which does not coincide with reality in my opinion. While free markets produce wonderful things, no individual firm sees a free market as necessarily a good thing. Firms by definition seek to create market failures that result in "excess" profits for themselves, mostly but by no means always by legitimate means. Any model of society that does not take this into account is seriously flawed.

Jose writes:

"In the early 1800's, it was possible for an American to pick up and move to a remote area where government had very little impact. That possibility tended to limit the power of the central government."

I would like to hear the Cherokee opinion of that.

Jose

BlackSheep writes:

When you consider the broad historical landscape, what you call of progressivism should actually be called regressivism. That's exactly why we feel so comfortable about such collectivist schemes; our ancestors lived under them and it was well suited for them. The problem is it doesn't scale, thus we need a plethora of competing social organizations. Your post is very good, but you might want to raise some awareness about the need to allow and tolerate different social choices in your next use of "progressivism."

Adam writes:

@GregIn fact, there are more checks and balances on politicians because there are competing candidates eager to use appearances of impropriety as campaign fodder. Firms are subject to much less oversight.

I think that this is primarily an illusion. First, because you have less power over politicians than they want you to believe, and second because you have more power over firms than you think.

It seems to me that most people view the lack of power over firms as more of "I don't have much power to stop them from doing something that I dislike" as opposed as more power to "find some firm that does things the way I like."

It seems to me that those who complain about having less power over companies than politicians are really people who are more about stopping people who offend them rather than encouraging those who don't. They come across a whiners rather than solution builders.

Mark writes:

Greg presents a legitimate concern, but poor logic. He argues that firms tend to capture government, so his solution is to make government more powerful. This solution simply increases the benefits for firms (an others) to further capture politicians and bureaucrats.

This isn't anything that wasn't understood by Adam Smith, the Founders of this country, or many others before them. It is the reason for decentralizing and limiting power as much as possible, not concentrating it further. For years, public choice economists have proven that the utopian ideal espoused by progressives and the left that politicians and bureaucrats serve the "public interest" is a myth.

I can almost always escape a potentially bad market outcome; I can almost never escape a bad government outcome. Adam aptly notes, "you have less power over politicians than they want you to believe," and "you have more power over firms than you think."

The Sheep Nazi writes:

FWIW, here is a backgrounder on John Sullivan, the latest nominee to the Federal Elections Commission:

Mixed reviews for W.H.'s surprise FEC pick

Mr. Sullivan is associate general counsel for the SEIU.

John Thacker writes:

"And as I found in my MBA class on business and government, firms explicitly devote substantial resources to gaming the system."

Which is why increasing the rewards of gaming the system is a poor method of dealing with it, but that seems to be your recommendation, Greg.

ThomasL writes:

"I think we need to boost the organizations of civil society that compete with government..."

Unfortunately, Mr Kling, this is simply impossible. Nothing can compete with government, as at any time government may make its competition illegal and drive it out forcibly.

With a powerful government, competition is formed by those institutions it hasn't gotten around to crushing yet.

Les writes:

Of course firms will try to bribe governments for favors. But I see two possible strategies to attempt to restrain the federal government:

1) A constitutional amendment that would greatly curtail what the federal government can do. This would require a super majority of states for ratification - difficult, but not impossible.

2) Greatly decreasing federal government scope and power and delegating much more to state governments. When any state government becomes too overbearing, businesses and individuals can vote with their feet, and move to another state. The goal is to increase competition between state governments. Also difficult, but not impossible.

David T writes:

Regarding your comment:

"I think that the big challenge for libertarians is to create conditions that enable people to exit from overbearing government."

The only "exit" I think we have is to move from one state to another assuming that each state has a meaningful ability to implement important policies, but this does not change the overbearing influence of the Federal government. I would think that state politicians would be more than happy to try and reduce the power of the Feds, but I don't see how to make this happen.

So, what is your proposed solution? Instead of just shooting down all other ideas, we need to find something else that might work.

ws1835 writes:

Thomas beat me to the punch.....

I love the weed analogy because it perfectly illustrates the public policy conundrum. If you never remove or contain the weeds in a yard, they will eventually overrun the lawn. One can reseed the grass or start new lawn in a clear patch, but eventually the grass fails and/or you run out of clear patches. Weeds are by their very nature designed to squeeze out the grass. Without artifical restrictions (fertilizer, weed killer, etc) the lawn will lose. In spring, from a distance, you might mow the weeds and have it look like a lawn, but look at it up close and it just isn't grass.

That is a perfect analogy for our floundering economy. We have gradually stopped applying weed killer (rule of law, limited public sector, etc) and the weeds are proliferating (eroded property rights, corporatism, extended welfare state, bloated public sector, etc). Some would say we still have a grass lawn (free market capitalism), but at this point no amount of mowing can make it look like one.

Greg Martin writes:

In my view the most probable alternative would be to expose elections and campaign finance to greater sunlight:

1) require campaigns to keep their books open and viewable to the public

2) forbid any campaign contributions within 7 calendar days prior to election day

3) limit campaign contributions to cash only, with no contribution limits, and ONLY from registered voters residing in the area to be represented

4) Term Limits--2 and then up or out

Items 1-3 could be implemented at the city/county/state level, do not require constitutional amendments, and could tap into the current populist/tea party protests that are being seen all across the nation.

With complex laws on the books serving to obfuscate the source of campaign funds, and laws like McCain Feingold helping to tilt the playing field towards incumbents, it would be more preferable in my view to know who the politicians owe favors to.

The Snob writes:
1) A constitutional amendment that would greatly curtail what the federal government can do. This would require a super majority of states for ratification - difficult, but not impossible.

The 10th Amendment does exactly this. Unfortunately it is treated as a sort of vestigial novelty much like the clause authorizing Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal. I wonder if the 2nd Amendment offers a template of sorts here for how to reinvigorate a more originalist understanding among legal scholars.

On the flip side, I see that the big thing among the green crowd these days is the promotion of local industry and agriculture as more sustainable and responsive to local interests. Leaving aside the problems with this, I see it as a branding opportunity for federalism.

I always tell people that I'd gladly trade my 25% Federal / 5.3% Massachusetts income tax regime for 5.3% federal / 25% Mass. One thing both left and Right seem to agree upon is that Washington's institutions seem to be getting dumber and less capable of coping with the challenges ahead of us. So let us find a solution closer to home.

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