Friday, September 30, 2005

A "Freakonomics" take on contribution limits

There are few things I loathe more than campaign finance so-called reform (CFSCR). And there are few things that frustrate me more than the support to be found for this dreadful idea in certain quarters of the Republican Party. Indeed, the failure of a certain senator from Arizona to recognize the wrongness of his thinking on the subject is the number one reason I cannot envision ever voting for him in a presidential primary, and pray I never have to vote for him in a general election.

It’s not that I’m completely blind to the desirability of guarding against corruption -- and yes, even its mere appearance -- in elections. I might even be willing to concede to CFSCR’s supporters the constitutionality of the government’s exercising such power.

But it has always seemed to me that a robust disclosure requirement is the sole permissible (not to mention practical) method of carrying out this task. A little sunlight goes a long way. We don’t allow children the franchise in this county, after all. Voters are adults. We ought to let them figure out for themselves the implications of Congressman X’s fundraising sources.

Moreover, campaign finance so-called reform carries with it some awfully nasty side effects. Chief among these is how it turns our lawmakers into perpetual mendicants. It is impossibly difficult to raise enough cash to purchase big media market airtime when one may do so only in very small amounts. More than one wag has compared contemporary American campaign fundraising to "filling a bathtub with an eyedropper." And if this state of affairs makes things inconvenient for incumbents, imagine how it affects challengers, who lack the name recognition and official clout of the officeholders they hope to unseat. CFSCR’s double duty as incumbent protection insurance may be its most pernicious feature of all.

But I digress. The point I set out to make is this: one of the underlying assumptions of CFSCR’s supporters, and one of the main justifications they unfailingly cite, is the purportedly airtight relationship between Congressman X’s positions, and the financial contributions Congressman X’s campaign has received from various interested parties (those dark and evil special interests!). I’m talking about vote buying.

We do tend to see some connection between donor and politician, of course. One rather doubts Ted Kennedy gets much cash from the National Rifle Association. And one would be startled to learn Senator Santorum receives support from NARAL.

I have always perceived, though, that campaign money flows in the opposite manner from how people imagine. An abortion rights zealot who could legally give Senator Kennedy a check for $100,000 would not be swaying Teddy’s vote. Rather, such a donor would be financially supporting a candidate who already agrees with him.

In short, the notion that money buys votes in Washington, DC -- the definition of a truism if there ever was one, is highly dubious. And no less a figure of authority than Steven D. Levitt, author of the best-seller Freakonomics, agrees. In a recent New York Times interview, Levitt opines:
To be honest, we do not think Big Money is as pernicious as others do. In "Freakonomics," we show how campaign spending does not affect elections nearly as much as most people think. And there is not that much evidence that politicians vote differently as a result of donations (many donations go to politicians who are already sympathetic to Big Money's causes). Our hunch is that Big Money already knows that money doesn't matter that much in politics. Why do we say that? Because there are relatively low limits on how much Political Action Committees can contribute to campaigns, yet hardly any PAC's max out on these limits. Relative to the government budget, campaign spending is tiny. We believe that Big Money has figured out they don't get a very good return on contributions, so they don't give that much.
I haven’t read Freakonomics yet, but it sounds like a good read. And it sounds like Levitt is a very smart guy.

Which leads me to one final thought, a query for one of our nation's leading statesmen: Senator McCain, may I suggest an addition to your Amazon wish list?

Cross-posted on RedState

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