Money in Politics – a skeptical view of campaign finance reform

In 1960 Thomas C. Schelling, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus at Harvard University, and co-recipient of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics, published a profound little book entitled: “The Strategy of Conflict.” The book, inspired in large part by the Cold War and the impending nuclear doom of the fifties, analyzed, from a “game theory” perspective, the nature of conflict between warring parties. Schelling illustrates his points about threats, promises, credibility of retaliation, etc. with examples from daily life as well as examples from geopolitics, and the book is overall a fascinating read.

One particular point that Schelling makes is that even mortal enemies have interests in common and therefore have occasion to negotiate. One example on this point (which was noted in a later edition of the book) is the negotiation that occurred between the U.S. and Cuba to stop the rash of reciprocal hijackings between the countries in the sixties and seventies. According to Wikipedia:

In 1973, the Nixon Administration ordered the discontinuance by the CIA of the use of hijacking as a covert action weapon against the Castro regime. Cuban intelligence followed suit. That year, the two countries reached an agreement for the prosecution or return of the hijackers and the aircraft to each other’s country.

Not surprisingly this agreement effectively ended hijackings between the U.S. and Cuba. While both  sides were gaining PR benefits from hijackings to their countries, both sides were, by the practice of hijackings, having their civil aviation basically thrown into chaos. Both sides had a strong interest in making the whole thing stop altogether.

Another example given by Schelling is the Geneva Convention and the agreement between the powers in WWII to guarantee humane treatment for prisoners of war. Often viewed as some sort of universal concession to fundamental moral principles, the Geneva Convention is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Rather, it is the result of a mutual interest of warring parties to have their own soldiers treated well if captured in battle (and to have that humane treatment verified by the Red Cross).

I believe that it is only in this context that most campaign finance laws make any sense.

The case for reducing the corrupting influence of money in politics is made so persistently, with such sincerity, and by such earnest, earnest advocates for the common good that it is impossible not to feel, lets face it, suspicious.

If campaign finance reform is to have any meaning at all, its underlying premise must be that both the Democrats and the Republicans can benefit by reducing or restricting (or opening to public scrutiny) the contributions of money to political candidates and causes. The benefit may be only a matter of public perception, but both sides need to feel some benefit in order for any legislation to take place.

That said, I believe that Republicans should be less inclined to view campaign finance reform favorably than Democrats, and here are seven good reasons why.

1. As Republicans know, people are smart. It is liberals who are always caterwauling that people are too easily duped by monied interests.

2. Advertising makes smart people smarter. More information about an issue or about a candidate leads to better judgement, not worse. Obviously if it is all one-sided a bias can occur. But even close-to-equal amounts of press leads to better decisions.

3. (Dovetailing with 1. and 2.) The smarter that people are, the more likely they are to vote Republican.

4. From a practical point of view it is very hard to restrict money in politics. As in everything, water runs downhill and keeping it dammed up is an endless chore.

5. Money is a good thing. It is liberals who think profit is dirty and evil and spending of money a sign of sin. By and large the making of money and the expenditure of money on the good things in life (e.g. defeating the likes of Obama and Warren) are positive values that should, all else being equal, be encouraged.

6. The First Amendment to the Constitution is a wonderful thing and should not be played with lightly.

7. Finally, our money is given freely. A lot of theirs is extorted (cf. Scott Walker vs. the forces of Darkness in Wisconsin) through compulsory union dues – which are going away soon.

So, I am open to arguments when people talk about campaign finance reform. But I want to see how our side benefits – not how some grand principal which is ultimately rooted in the idea that money is evil, gets furthered by the reform, before I am willing to get behind it.

There is one example of a problem with money in politics, however, where I am strongly sympathetic. That issue, about which former Independent Congressional candidate from MA-03 in 2010, Pat Barron, makes a strong case, is the way that money is funneled about within the two parties. As Barron points out in the website definingthemachine.com, a great deal of influence is bought and sold in the form of party dues paid by Congressional members once they have been elected.

Many people are unaware, for example, that campaign donations are fungible. That is, the money you give to one candidate can be simply given by the candidate to someone else without informing you. Members of Congress, from their campaign funds, regularly give, in the form of dues, hundreds of thousands of dollars to their parties to be used at the parties’ discretion. That is your money and mine.

Barron also has catalogued many other dubious practices (such as the near buying and selling of committee chairmanships) that go on with your donations. I recommend his website and the companion site, Keepcongresshonests.com, for further reading.

In the meantime, the Forces of Darkness are still out there. And if money can’t buy us a little freedom, what is it good for?

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