ELB Book Corner: Primo and Milyo (Post 4 of 4): The Road Ahead for Campaign Finance Reform

I am pleased to welcome to ELB Book Corner David Primo and Jeff Milyo, writing about their new book, Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What The Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters (U Chicago Press 2020). Here is their final of four posts:

ELB Book Corner

In the last of four blog posts about our new book Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters, we place our findings into perspective.

You can look at our book’s major finding—that campaign finance laws do not affect trust and confidence in government, contrary to the assumptions of courts and reformers—in one of two ways. For die-hard supporters of reform—we call them True Believers in our book, where we discuss them in much more detail—this may be depressing, cognitive-dissonance-inducing stuff. But their “romantic view” of democracy—that if we could just get money out of politics we could enact the “right” policies—has been at odds with the scientific research on collective decision making for some time. This is one more nail in the coffin for that naïve perspective.

But even many campaign finance experts seem to adopt the “romantic” perspective, at least to some degree. In chapters 1 and 7 of our book, we report the results of the first-ever published survey (far as we can tell) of campaign finance experts. Figure 1.1 of our book, reproduced below, compares experts’ responses to the responses of Americans on a set of questions about money in politics. Not surprisingly, experts better understand the realities of campaign finance—for instance, that elective offices are not for sale to the highest bidder. Yet nearly 70% of the experts who took our survey believe that “campaign finance reform is needed to restore the integrity of American democracy.”

For those of us who adopt a “politics without romance” perspective (a phrase coined by the economist James Buchanan) grounded in the traditions of public choice and political economy, these results are one more piece of evidence that democracy has its limits. The pathologies of collective decision making—manifested most elegantly by Arrow’s Theorem—are unrelated to campaign finance. It’s absolutely worth studying how campaign finance alters models of decision making, but we should not be surprised that the fundamental limits of democracy remain even after tinkering with how campaigns are funded.

So what is the path forward for campaign finance reform? While we disagree with him often, Rick Hasen’s focus on political equality and campaign finance moves the conversation in a productive direction—though as we discuss in our book, we are skeptical that political equality is a viable standard for assessing reform efforts. We’d rather see a debate about political equality, however, than a continued beating of the dead horses of trust in government and the appearance of corruption.

We also need better education about money in politics. The public, reporters, and even judges often learn about campaign finance from advocacy groups which have a very clear rhetorical script when it comes to campaign finance. Social scientists can contribute to the public discourse by better informing the American public, the media, policymakers, and others about the role of money in the US political system. We are not so Pollyannaish to think that this will lead to a sea change in how the public thinks about campaign finance. But, we are certain that allowing reform groups and politicians to frame the campaign finance debate will cause misunderstandings and misinformation to flourish.

Thank you for taking the time to read about our book, and thank you once more to Rick Hasen for this opportunity. There are many findings we didn’t have time to discuss in these blog posts, and we hope you will find our results interesting enough to merit getting a copy of our book to learn more.

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