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Welfare for Politicians?: Taxpayer Financing of Campaigns

Dismantling Arguments in Favor of Campaign Finance Reform


Imagine a government policy that funds an important civic function, but is not mandatory; which is paid for not through taxes, but through voluntary contributions; and which adds nothing to the government debt. Sound good? This is a description of the United States’ traditional system of privately funded political campaigns. And the best is yet to come: the cost falls almost entirely on the wealthiest Americans.

Oddly enough, it is precisely this last factor—the fact that the dissemination of political in formation in political campaigns is paid almost entirely by voluntary contributions from the wealthiest Americans—that spurs constant calls for “public” financing of political campaigns. According to the “reformers” who promote what are more properly called “government-funded” or “tax-funded” campaigns, the system of voluntary campaign funding results in both political inequality and government corruption. Officeholders ignore the common good to bend to the will of their contributors, and contributors exercise unequal or “undue”—influence over public policy.

Nevertheless, when given a choice, Americans have shown little desire to have taxpayer money given to candidates. Though it does not raise tax liability, barely one in ten Americans chooses to direct $3 of his federal income tax to the Presidential Campaign Fund, the country’s longest-running experiment with tax-funded campaigns. In 2002 the Massachusetts legislature placed an initiative before voters to have the government fund campaigns. Voters in that “liberal” state defeated the measure by the largest margin of any ballot initiative in its history.

Supporters of tax-funded campaigns, however, are well-financed—by some estimates, over $200 million has been spent by groups dedicated to lobbying for “campaign finance reform” since 1995—and persistent. By promoting such ballot initiatives as “clean election” laws, they have succeeded in passing government-financing plans in Arizona, Vermont, and Maine, and hope to take their proposals nationwide. With rare exceptions, there has been no organized resistance to these efforts, and so pro-reform arguments tend to dominate the debate.

Welfare for Politicians? is a small but significant effort to redress that imbalance. Editor John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, and 12 other contributors take apart the arguments for taxpayer-financed campaigns. Or perhaps I should say ten other contributors—two authors, Paul Taylor and Michael J. Malbin—argue, respectively, in favor of  “free” television broadcast time and higher government subsidies to campaigns. In other words, this selection of essays is by no means balanced. But it is always fair, and it makes for a devastating critique of “reform.”

For many, it seems intuitively obvious that privately funded campaigns lead to inequality and corruption. But the evidence tends to show that the opposite is true: a system without limits on private contributions and spending tends to be more open to change and to new ideas, more responsive to voters, and less open to political manipulation. Thus the most powerful essays in this collection are two that succinctly marshal the growing body of evidence supporting privately funded campaigns as the fairest, most open system of funding. “Why Subsidize the Soapbox?” by Samples and Adam Thierer, demolishes the “false assumptions behind free [television] time.” “Reform without Reason: The Scientific Method and Campaign Finance,” by political scientists Jeffrey Milyo and David Primo, begins by noting that “the public debate over campaign finance reform rarely—if ever—makes use of serious scholarly research,” and after summarizing that research, concludes that “conventional wisdom greatly exaggerates the role of money in American politics.”

Other essays similarly demonstrate the failure of government-funded campaign systems. Chip Mellor of the Institute for Justice and Robert Franciosi of the Goldwater Institute demonstrate the failure of “clean election” laws to achieve their objectives in Arizona and show how the law tends to bias elections in favor of supporters of big government. Patrick Basham and Martin Zelder reach similar conclusions after reviewing the results of Maine’s “clean elections” experiment. And Samples demonstrates how taxpayer funding of presidential elections has also failed t o meet its stated goals.

What makes these essays impressive is their cumulative power. The authors avoid hot rhetoric in favor of an accessible but relentless recital of actual data. They do not argue that the goals of tax-financed campaigns are wrong, but rather that such campaigns uniformly fail to achieve those goals and in the process damage our democracy. And they conclude that because tax-funding proposals are based on a faulty understanding of how democracy works and the role money plays in democracy, they are destined to fail.


April 2006

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April 2014

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