In a letter to friend, Cicero observed that Julius Caesar had become “less inclined to court popularity with the masses at the expense of principle.” It’s impressive that a political commentator from 2,000 B.M.F. (Before McCain-Feingold) expressed a modern-sounding worry about impure political motives. And it’s impressive that a guy like me can quote Cicero. Until recently, my knowledge of ancient Rome consisted of a recollection that Tony Curtis’ biceps in the movie Spartacus had much less muscle definition than, say, Superman’s or the Incredible Hulk’s.
I learned about Cicero recently from a Teaching Company tape lecture series on Rome. I listen to Teaching Company tapes in traffic on the Washington Beltway, either fighting my way west from I-95 to Rockville Pike, or crawling over the Wilson Bridge into Virginia. Had environmental groups not pressed Governor Glendening to nix the Intercounty Connector, or had Glendening not insisted on union scale for the Wilson Bridge reconstruction, I’d perhaps still be thinking “Chicago suburb” at the mention of the name Cicero. So it goes with the law of unintended consequences.
When I’m done my Rome tapes and the series on “Particle Physics for the Non-Physicist” that I’m saving in the trunk of my car, I’m going to purchase “Legacies of Great Economists,” from which I’ll learn how economic principles played a role in the political “marketplace” where unions and environmentalists influenced Governor Glendening’s decisions on the Wilson Bridge construction and the Intercounty Connector.
Economics certainly plays a role in the political machinations of unions and environmental groups. Let’s state the obvious about unions, for example. While unions have a higher warm and fuzzy rating than most businesses that employ their members, unions are every bit a creature of the marketplace as those mustache twirling owners. While I don’t have a quarrel with unions pushing for union scale on the Wilson Bridge job, I do have a quarrel with the sentiment that Glendening’s position was morally superior to that of the Virginia, which opposed union scale. More money for construction workers means less money for social workers.
The same is true with environmental policy. Environmental concerns spring from the heart as much as from the head, but sophisticated environmentalists advocate impersonal market mechanisms, such as pollution credits, to reduce pollution. As with unions, moral judgments about the environment are more useful in identifying goals than in designing means for achieving them.
The quote from Cicero (to be really pompous in my razzing of Glendening) only underscores how deeply imbedded the tension between principle and political calculation is in the political process. Our very own James Madison, who surely read Cicero (as opposed to listening to him on Books On Tape), recognized the practical implication of Cicero’s thinking by arguing that while the first aim of a constitution was to obtain leaders who possessed virtue, the second was to make sure they stayed virtuous.
With Madison in mind, therefore, one might ask, did the unions and environmentalists keep Glendenning virtuous, or did their influence corrupt him? The answer is almost surely an un-Madisonian one: It depends on your politics.
That’s the way it always is, it seems, with politics, with one exception. On the question of whether campaign contributions corrupt politics, the predominant response is likely to be yes, irrespective of political affiliation. In other words, there is in the public’s mind a per se connection between money and corruption. That morality-based view leads to strident bi-partisan efforts to squeeze money out of the political process, like McCain-Feingold.
Swatting at the money, however, does little to diminish its volume. Politicians need money to campaign, and interest groups want access.
Insoluble problems sometimes get solved when you redefine the problem. Campaign finance reformers should give up on shooing away the money and redefine the problem as one of market design. A political market, of course, is not the same as a market for labor or widgits. But it is a market.
For voters, the coin of the realm in this market is information about the political views, character and experience of candidates. Voters obtain this information through ads, the press, and, most decisively, by inferring from party affiliation. One could argue that money, provided its source is disclosed, improves the flow of information. The fact that 1,000 Friends of Maryland gives to candidate A, and that trial lawyers give to candidate B is useful information to voters. Indeed, studies show that most political contributions go to politicians who already agree with the donors. Some studies also show a positive correlation between campaign expenditures and voter turnout.
Consider how a focus on controlling money damages the marketplace for election information. Wealthy individuals enjoy an inappropriate advantage over less wealthy opponents. In addition, restrictions on money disadvantage constituencies which can’t match the in-kind capabilities of large, member-based organizations.
In addition, by discouraging contributions to candidates and political parties, money tends to flow to unaffiliated groups. Wherever you stand on the politics of Moveon.org or George Soros, you have a long-term interest in consensus governance and in discouraging unaffiliated movements that chance upon a wealthy benefactor or a clever promotional model.
Let Soros spend his money come what may. However, both his admirers and detractors would be better off were he to give his money to the Democratic Party. Big campaign bucks spent by unaffiliated groups staffed with undisclosed political operatives is scary. Just as Madison approved mediating the passion of the crowd through a republican form of government, the passions of a Soros should be channeled into established, mainstream political parties. “We hold a republican remedy for the diseases of a republican government,” declared Madison.
In the spirit of market design, consider term limits and the elimination of gerrymandering through nonpartisan redistricting. Non-gerrymandered districts means fewer safe seats, less of a focus on identity politics, and a premium on political discourse at the expense of patronage. Non-gerrymandered districts with term limits also means that contributions will flow more evenly to candidates from each party. Finally, with more competitive districts and more frequent turnover in office holders, money will flow to accountable intermediaries — political parties — which offer an efficient, professionalized means of communicating political messages.
Attempts to keep money out of politics are hopeless. By viewing campaign finance reform as a matter of market design, we relieve our obsession with money as a talisman of corruption. We can shift our focus to facilitating a healthy flow of information through the political marketplace.
Perhaps more emblematic of the campiness of Spartacus than Tony Curtis’ shoe salesman biceps is the ample volume of campy dialogue. A nobleman complains at one point that “one of the disadvantages of being a Patrician is that occasionally you are obliged to act like one.” In today’s world, when the election dust settles, winners realize that a disadvantage of winning is the persistent scrutiny of voters. In a competitive district with well financed opponents waiting in the wings, they can do as many or as few favors for their political friends as they wish, but if they are corrupt, or are perceived as selling out to special interests, money is not likely to help them keep their jobs.