Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Political contributions and democracy

Representative democracy has become a very expensive activity. For instance, in 2008 the USA presidential candidates raised more than $1.8 billion in campaign funds, an 80% increase in relation to the 2004 campaign . The Democratic presidential nominee alone, Barack Obama, raised a total of $745.7 million in private funds for his election campaign.

It was the first time in the history of presidential public financing that a major party nominee declined to accept public funds for the general election. Is this a good or bad development and what it says about market capitalism?

The controversy between public and private financing has a long history, especially in what regards the special advantage that private financing may give to incumbents and special interest groups (e.g. trade unions and business associations) over the election process .

In abstract, the freedom of association principle should go with the principle of free financing. However, since public office gives those elected an ample scope for decisions that favor private interests, such power has a monetary value that may supersede the public service motivation. Therefore, the rule of free financing cannot be easily upheld under representative systems.

For this reason, under systems of state capitalism, capping campaign spending and restricting its financing to public funds may prove a better solution to secure a level playing field in democracy.

However, in countries close to market capitalism, why shouldn’t the candidates be able to tender some of their policies to special interest groups? For instance, party A could tender the easing of regulations in the financial sector, more private outsourcing of public services, more arms spending, etc. against political campaign contributions.

There is one fundamental reason why that cannot be made. It would be impossible to create a competitive market for political funding because of the asymmetric nature of the benefits received by the special interest groups and the public in general. Imagine for instance that one thousand banks can earn each 100 million dollars from deregulation while 200 million voters can save one thousand dollars from tighter deposit protection. That is, banks could earn up to 100 billion while depositors could save up to twice that amount. However, this difference may not be enough for voters to outbid the banks because their gain is only a potential saving while that of the bankers is a certain gain.

So, it is unquestionable that market capitalism requires the regulation of political contributions. And, in fact, all democratic countries regulate them, namely by limiting contributions by foreigners, by contractors of public services, trade associations, unions, regulated corporations, etc. These are usually complemented by rules on public disclosure.

Nevertheless, these limits and rules are easily evaded through soft dollars and by setting up special vehicles to make contributions (e.g. foundations, think tanks, etc.) or through the media and other unrelated intermediaries.

So, a level playing field in political campaigning must be promoted more vigorously, namely by capping the size of donations to small amounts, limiting the amount of advertising, etc. However, such limitations must be based in the principles of constitutional liberalism. Otherwise, the strong positive synergies that exist between market capitalism, constitutional liberalism and representative democracy are lost.

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