Public financing of elections is necessary in every modern democracy in order to stop representatives from being dependent on the wealthy class of society and therefore from making policy for the good of a few rather than for the good of all. Democracy has a standard for how decisions should be made. Money is not the standard. The standard is the will of the people. Public funding, with strict limits on private donations, would help restore balance to a system that currently gives a privileged place to candidates who represent the views of commercial and individual wealth and that marginalizes other ideas, principles, programs, and ways of living. The idea is to have elections that are competitive based on the quality of the ideas and policies of the candidates, not on access to money. Money and those who have it are indifferent to the quality of ideas themselves, and promote ideas that serve the interests of those who are paying to have them promoted, regardless of how good or bad those ideas are. A public financing system that gives diverse voices the means to be heard equally would therefore help create elections that are decided by broader, more rational deliberation, instead of the size of campaign chests.
The Basic Proposal
What I’m proposing is something like the "Clean Election" legislation that has been experimented with in some states. Clean Election laws give candidates public funding for their election campaigns as long as they also accept limits on the total spending. My preferred proposal would be somewhat different, in that it would be mandatory for all candidates, and the public treasury would be the predominant means of political funding. The basic mechanism would be the same for all elections, national, state, and federal, for legislative bodies or executive offices, including governorships and the presidency.
Each candidate for office would receive a minimum base level of public financing, equal to all other candidates in their race. The amounts would need to be adjusted for the costs of local media markets and for the sizes of constituencies. Advertising is more expensive in New York City than in Des Moines, and while, for example, House districts all have roughly equal constituencies, Senate seats would have to be funded proportionally to the size of their state populations. Eligibility for public funding would be based on a candidate gathering a minimum number of signatures of constituents supporting his or her candidacy, on the order of .01 per cent (which would be 6,000 signatures for a House seat, about 45,00 for a mid-population state like Louisiana, and 375,000 for California; it would take 3,000,000 signatures to run for President). The amount of the minimum base could be be set at about a third of the average spent during the last several election cycles, with about another third coming from the parties and the remainder from small private donations, as I will discuss below. This minimum base of funding would go a long way to making elections more competitive, because political scientists note that campaign spending is subject to diminishing returns: initial expenditures are most effective, dollar for dollar, while overexpenditure in a race eventually becomes less marginally effective. This means that a candidate with even a moderately funded base amount can make a race of it even against a better-funded candidate.
The Role of Political Parties
Political parties play a special role in modern democracy. For all the complaints about partisanship, political parties, at least when free from having to beg for campaign cash from private donors, compete from different philosophical and ideological bases of principles and ideas, and they wrap these ideas up into an agenda or platform for voters to choose from. In so doing they take a vast amount of complex information about society, economics, and politics and simplify it enough to make a political choice possible for average voters. This is necessary because such information is so complex that all of it is not comprehensible to any one individual alone -- even those of us with PhDs in politics cannot possibly know all the details about defense, foreign policy, domestic policy, macroeconomics, microeconomics, civil rights, tax law, energy policy, space exploration, espionage, civil law, etc. etc. Political parties, in defining a joint party philosophy towards governing and presenting it to the public in a comprehensible form, serve an entirely necessary role that society needs to make political representation possible in complex modern societies.
However, political parties are not recognized in the United States by the Constitution, and indeed, are not mentioned at all. Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, political parties in Congress are not very “partisan” in the sense of being strong or well-disciplined. Each member of Congress runs their own campaign operation and raises their own funds, and thus they are ultimately independent of the dictates of the party leadership and, in the last analysis, can vote as they wish without much fear of party discipline. What partisanship exists in Congress is based on persuasion, horse trading of pork projects, and ideological affinity. The latter factor has made the contemporary Republican party a far more disciplined unit than the Democrats, and so by virtue of zealotry they have been much more successful in pushing their ideological agenda over time. Nonetheless, neither party is as disciplined in pushing the party platform as, say, parties in the parliamentary systems of Europe, where coherent, programmatic policies are easier to pass and implement. The United States system, in which each representative runs their own Congressional operation as if they were a private entrepreneur, leads to policy incoherence, excessive waste, higher budget deficits, and congressional forfeiting of policy making to the presidency and to lobbyists. Ultimately this poor mode of fragmented governance leads to the low levels of legitimacy that Congress suffers, with approval ratings sometimes sinking into the single digits.
The parties thus should play a role in controlling and dispersing some campaign funds, in addition to those received by individual candidates. I would do it by giving the national committees of each party matching funds equal to the total received individually by their candidates to distribute to candidates in need, to those involved in tight races, or otherwise as they see fit. A similar scheme of matching funds would go to each state party for state races, and to local parties for local races.
Thus, each candidate would receive a base of a third of typical campaign costs as measured over the last few elections cycles, with the parties receiving an equal amount to spread across all their candidates as they saw fit. I’m not wedded to these proportions; what matters is that the majority of campaign funds come from the public treasury, and according to a set rule that can’t be varied by the ruling party, for obvious reasons.
Note that it would be possible here for third parties other than the Democrats and Republicans to receive public money to run election campaigns: any third party candidates that got the required signatures would get funds, and their national party structures would also receive funds. This would help weaken the stagnant two-party duopoly and enable other parties to run candidates with a legitimate shot at getting elected based on the quality of their ideas, giving our electoral system a much-needed boost of fresh air. (Third parties are disapproved of by some people and I will write extensively about them at another time. Of note here is that third parties face many barriers to entry into the electoral system, but one of the main barriers is money, and a public funding system would go a long way to fixing that and allowing new voices to be heard.)
Small Private Donations
A system that provides a minimum of public funding for candidates would make the political playing field much more level. However, funding for political campaigns should not come solely from one source, and people should be able to donate to the party and candidates that they support. One form of donation that regular people should be more easily able to give is the donation of their time, and I think we should require employers to give people paid time off for political and charitable activities. But people will also want to give donations of money too. The massive donations that dominate the political system now distort it to the point where democracy is effectively smothered under a mountain of money. If a democratic republic is to be a government of, by, and for the people, we can allow private money from individuals and groups, but only with a strict upper limit easily affordable by those with average incomes. Allowing such small donations by private individual citizens would promote diversity of funding sources, spread influence, and avoid concentrating power in the hands of the central state and its bureaucrats. Furthermore, in my view donations ought to be allowed by non-profit organizations in addition to those of individual citizens, because NGOs, civic associations, and other civil society groups represent key interests in society that deserve to support their considered, organized opinions. However, such donations should be allowed from non-profit groups only and never from for-profit corporations, on the principle that only groups that explicitly and directly pursue a public interest, rather than a narrow or selfish private interest, should be able to influence public elections.
The Same Rules Should Apply to All
One difference of the proposal from Clean Elections laws is that this would be a mandatory system for all candidates, not an opt-in system where candidates accept spending restrictions in exchange for some public money. An opt-in system is still inherently biased towards candidates who are wealthy, or have easy access to wealthy donors; that is, such a system is biased towards capitalist conservatives. If you have a lot of private money for your campaign then you have no spending limitations; if you accept public money then you do. Thus this equation is not balanced on both sides, but is tilted towards the already-rich and their representatives. Critics of capitalism, whether outright socialists or mere welfare state liberals, are completely marginalized in such a system. In order for political campaigns to actually be fair competitions of political philosophies and programs, all candidates would have to have roughly the same war chests. Public funding and spending limits would therefore be mandatory for all candidates, period, so that everyone is following the same rules.
But shouldn’t candidates have the right to choose whether they want to take public money or not? Isn’t freedom of choice the highest principle? Don’t we Americans love free choice? Yet these are candidates for public office, not consumers. When a candidate runs for public office, they must accept that public duty will thenceforth govern their lives and their behavior, not personal choice. That is what it means to be a public servant. It doesn’t matter whether a campaign financing system would be one that candidates would choose, what matters is whether it meets the public good of having truly competitive democratic elections. The only people whose choice matters in elections is the citizenry. An election system must maximize their freedom choice, not that of the candidates.
But then, some will object, what about the freedom of choice of individual voters? Shouldn’t they have the right to spend as much as they like on the candidates that they favor? Isn’t that what freedom of speech is all about -- the freedom to stand up for your political ideas with as much money as you have to give? Now, everyone has a right to freedom of speech, but no one has a right to a privately purchased congressman. Despite recent foolish decisions of our conservative Supreme Court, money is not speech, nor is money a form of communication at all. Freedom of speech is not the same thing as the freedom to spend money on behalf of speech.
Speech is speech, and writing is writing; these are direct forms of communication. So are things like sending an e-mail or making an internet video, or anything else that directly conveys your thoughts to other people. Spending money itself is not a direct speech act, it is a purchase. Indeed, it can be used to buy the means by which some speech acts can be propagated in our mediated age, when human communication can be transmitted via electronic, broadcast, and other forms of media. But it is not itself primarily and directly communication. It is one thing to talk to someone personally or make a political status update on Facebook for a few hundred friends; it’s another thing entirely to establish and entire cable TV network or dominate the radio waves on behalf of one political ideology. Massive inequalities of money are what allow that to happen. Direct speech acts are a relatively equal: while some people can be more persuasive in their rhetorical skill than others, and some appear better on camera, such unequal talents pale in comparison to monetary inequality in a mediated campaign environment, for money is a resource that can be used to magnify some voices over others through the use of advertising and public relations. Money is thus a means to make speech publicly available, but is not speech itself.
As a means to making a candidate’s political ideas available to the public, money should be distributed in an egalitarian way so that those ideas can be judged by their quality, not simply by their availability, whether they are heard more often or not. Therefore, while the First Amendment protects freedom of speech itself, it should never be understood to prevent restriction or regulation of how money is used during political campaigns. Candidates should be free to say whatever they want without censorship, but their ability to make those pronouncements widely available to the public should itself be as equal as possible.
Furthermore, those who equate free speech with the freedom to spend money on behalf of speech always talk like it is a matter of individual choice, when in fact most of the large spending is done on behalf of corporations, which, despite other foolish statements by the Supreme Court and some presidential candidates, are not individual people but are collective organizations of people that, because of a legal fiction, are sometimes treated legally as persons. As organizations, corporations have powers that individuals do not: they are potentially immortal, they are not limited in their physical reach or size as the human body is, they are capable of multitasking and of carrying out tasks that individuals are not, and they are able to collect and expend potentially limitless amounts of money. Thus the powers of choice of corporations are far greater than that of actually individual citizens. But the citizen is the basic unit of a republic, and the basic principle of representative democracy is equal representation of citizens: one person one vote. There’s no reason why legal fictions should be able to effectively trump, through money, the principle of equal representation.
Putting the Cost in Perspective
Finally, I want to note that the public funding of campaigns isn’t primarily about cutting the costs of elections; rather, it is primarily about reducing or even eliminating the sway that those with private money have over the making of policy, which should be decided by everyone together regardless of income or wealth. The costs of elections are minimal as part of our overall social expenditure. This year’s presidential race will cost around two or three billions dollars, which may seem like a lot but is about .0002 of our annual GDP, which is about $15 trillion. When you evaluate the costs of elections, you have to keep in mind that this is the price we pay for democracy. Of course, this expenditure should be made in a way so that we have good elections that transmits the judgment of the public into policy, and not what we currently have, in which great expense is made to distort policy making away from the public interest and towards the private, selfish interest of the wealthy class that can afford to buy representation. Elections are the definitive feature of representative democracy, and they have to be paid for, and we should be willing to spare no expense from the public treasury to have good ones.
Next time I will discuss how a system of public campaign financing should be put in place; it would obviously have to be done through a constitutional amendment.