Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Against campaign finance regulations

Once again, I've read news that illustrates the absurdity and danger of campaign finance regulations...

It seems that the Federal Election Commission has been negligent in regulating campaign activities that make use of the Internet, and has been ordered by a Federal court to devise regulations that apply the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to the Internet. Needless to say, political bloggers are up in arms against the chance that their activities (writings or advertisement) could be subject to regulation, illustrating the basic problems of campaign finance regulations.

The fundamental problem facing attempts to regulate campaign spending is that political speech and money are both ubiquitous and essential in modern American society; we can't stop them from influencing each other any more than we can stop water and air from coming into contact around the globe. Regulators are faced with an impossible balancing act of allowing free discussion of political issues while restricting how money can be used to amplify one's own voice. As a result, regulations are necessarily arbitrary--for example, you can buy a newspaper publisher and publish your views without restriction, but if you want to buy advertising space in that same newspaper, you are loaded with restrictions. Loopholes are also inevitable--not only are regulators limited by the need to avoid restrictions on "legitimate" speech, but limits on spending or contributions are undermined by the fact that money is anonymous and there are an infinite number of ways that money can get from one person to another person in exchange for a particular service.

These loopholes are perhaps the most tragic aspect of campaign finance regulations, since their existence means that there is always a need for another law, which will eternally occupy the attention of pro-democracy activists, distracting them from an agenda that could really increase democracy in our society.

Like many activities of government, campaign finance regulations are bound to fail because they are a knee-jerk reaction that treats the symptoms of a problem without addressing the underlying cause. In this case, the problem is not that politicians collect money from special interest groups, the problem is that elected officials are not fully accountable to the voters. Campaign finance regulations do not address that problem; but that problem can be addressed with reforms, such as Lani Guinier's power-sharing reforms, that increase competition in elections and decrease the risk associated with "losing" an election.

Another way to address the problem is to recognize that our campaign finance problems result from the fact that politics depends on communication, and our communication system is heavily commercial and plutocratic; a society with a plutocratic communication system will inevitably have a plutocratic political system, not a democratic one. Attempts to democratize our communication system will have a much more fundamental and lasting effect on political democratization than any regulatory agency could. Stay tuned, because my next article will evaluate what avenues we have to democratize our communication system.


Xpatriated Texan said...

I agree with you that politicians are not accountable to voters. Where I disagree with you is that I believe this is true because they are able to solicit money from people and organizations that are beyond their constituency.

I think two simple reforms would solve a large part of the problems with campaign financing. First, all money spent on a campaign must be raised within the constituency the politician will represent - meaning your Congressman cannot accept money from outside his or her district, your Senator cannot accept donations from outside his or her state, etc.

The other is that only natural persons able to vote should have the right to contribute to campaigns. There is simply no justification, in my mind, for someone to have influence over our electoral system if they are not actually part of that system in the most basic way.

The loopholes exist, not as a consequence of trying to control money, but as a consequence of vested interests trying very hard to exempt their own money from those controls.


Adam said...

The solution to the problem depends, in part, on how the problem is defined. At one extreme, we could say that the problem is just the possibility that politicians are changing their behavior in order to attract campaign contributions. At the other extreme, we could assume that any particular politician stays true to his beliefs, but a politician can only win if he agrees with the wealthy.

It is the more general type of corruption that is extremely difficult to manage; the wealthy will have disproportionate influence over our political system because they dominate our communication system.

Even if there is a limit on the contributions that a person can make to a campaign, and only eligable voters can contribute to a campaign, these rules can be evaded by funelling money through individuals (family members and employees) who have not contributed their own money to any campaign.

Furthermore, there are all types of activities and organizations that help one candidate or another, but are not officially affiliated with those candidates. Wealthy individuals and corporations can influence elections (and politicians) by supporting these activties: issue ads, ads attacking other candidates, editorials and articles in partisan news sources (Fox), get out the vote drive in particular neighborhoods, etc.

Finally, the wealthy have the ability to insert themselves into the social and institutional world of the politicians. They also have the ability to hire analysts and PR folk to provide biased reports to the politicians.

It's pretty hard, if not impossible, to regulate that stuff without also interfering with legitimate or "natural" social activities.