Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Campaign Finance Reform

Should campaign donations and spending be regulated, and if so, how? Limiting donations makes sense, in hopes of preventing regulatory capture and the other terrible consequences of moneyed interests gaining influence over politicians. But if one can raise large sums from a multitude of small donations, is there any reason to want to cap this?

One might defend spending caps by pointing out that campaigns that spend more on advertising gain an "unfair" advantage. We don't want something as vulgar as money to influence our elections. But there will always be non-rational factors influencing voters; if not advertising exposure, then plain old name recognition. That's surely no better (and maybe worse; at least advertising has some informational content).

Rather than seeking to limit campaign spending, it might make sense to offer extra public funds if needed. (One possibly tricky question is how to set the qualifying criteria, though I guess they already do this somehow -- I'm not familiar with the details.) But spending caps just don't make any sense, unless you think that official campaign advertising has zero or negative informational content at the margin. (Maybe they just spread lies.)

But rather than directly funding the candidates, couldn't we find a better use of public funds, i.e. some form of political spending that would increase the rationality of the election more than subsidizing ads for the underdog? (That's not exactly asking a lot.) For example: how about funding ads for and similar non-partisan civic groups? (I guess such groups always face the risk of partisan takeover, and the allocation of such funding would be highly contested, but surely there must be some transparently fair way to arrange this?) Or, better yet, institute Ackerman and Fishkin's idea of a nationwide "Deliberation Day":
Registered voters will be called together in neighborhood meeting places, in small groups of fifteen, and larger groups of five hundred, to discuss the central issues raised by the campaign. Each deliberator will be paid $150 for the day's work of citizenship. ...

If Deliberation Day succeeded, everything else would change: the candidates, the media, the activists, the interest groups, the spin doctors, the advertisers, the pollsters, the fund raisers, the lobbyists, and the political parties. All would have no choice but to adapt to a more attentive and informed public


  1. I guess you won't agree and also might delete this simply because I don't forward the discussion; but my intention is to pose not exactly an objection, but a difficulty which arises from that kind of commentary you just posted.

    Put simply, isn't naïve to defend that kind of "change"? I know it's theoretical and not actually empirical (though it should be), yet that seems close to proposing everyone or at least big amounts of people should buy bicycles so we can give an answer to Global Warming.

    Okay. Now I have a question that I'd like you to answer (again, if you may want): do you really think we can change the world, or at least "change" America? Because I really think all your presuppositions involve an epistemic flaw. In fact, contrarily to what Marx said in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, philosophers shouldn't try to change the world, since the world just can't be changed (in a big way).

    And more than that, can there be changes or revolutions (I know you're not talking about this) in modern 21st century societies? Isn't there much more big things than lonely players (like voters)?

    That is why I used the strong word "naïve", viz. because you don't seem to acknowledge there is very big real politics that won't even give a second of its time to you or to theoretical man like you (or me).

  2. Of course, I'm under no delusions about my personal political power. But I'm not deliberating about what reform I, personally, should institute. (As you say, I'm obviously not in a position to institute any such reform.) I'm just interested in the theoretical question of what reforms would be best.

    But on your broader question of efficacy, it seems to me unquestionable that change is possible if enough people (in the right places) support it. (And contributions to the public debate constitute a step -- however modest -- towards this.) Just look at what the neocons and torture apologists accomplished -- change for the worse, no doubt, but America has done (atrocious) things no one would have dreamt possible 8 years ago.

  3. I know that neoconservatives were able to make changes over the last few decades (Reagan or even perhaps, lato sensu, Nixon up to now), but they also constituted lots of think tanks. Even libertarians have a very deep voice nowadays (think of the overwhelming Ron Paul internet campaign), for they were able to develop things like Mises Institute and myriads of others. Up to now what is the big "liberal" (or utilitarian, as you call it) option?

  4. Reagan as a neocon? Now that's something I've not heard before.


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