Can you change people's minds about money in politics?
I'm doing a BloggingHeads later today with Larry Lessig to discuss his excellent article on the ways in which the torrent of money in politics harms both outcomes and perceptions of the political process. This morning, Tyler Cowen posted a link to this paper (pdf) by David Primo and Jeffrey Milyo that undermines the whole concept:
The decline of political efficacy and trust in the United States is often linked to the rise of money in politics. Both the courts and reform advocates justify restrictions on campaign donations and spending as necessary for the improvement of links between the government and the governed.
We conduct the first test of whether campaign finance laws actually influence how citizens view their government by exploiting the variation in campaign finance regulations both across and within states during the last half of the 20th century. Our analysis reveals no large positive effects of campaign finance laws on political efficacy. Public disclosure laws and limits on contributions from organizations are in some cases associated with modest increases in efficacy, but public financing is associated with a similarly modest decrease in efficacy.
My personal view is that there's a big difference between the problems that money introduces into legislation and the problems that money introduces into the public's view of the political system. I think the former is arguably overstated, and perfectly possible to fix. Passing Dick Durbin's Fair Elections Act would be an excellent start.
But I think the latter is, if anything, understated, and is almost impossible to fix. It's hard to imagine anything but a blanket ban on corporate money (which would be unconstitutional) that comes after a bruising and public fight seriously changing public perceptions of the system's legitimacy. And that's not somehow irrational. People are right to believe that they have less power in the system than corporate actors, and they'd be wrong to believe the situation had changed unless the situation had actually changed. But changing that situation requires reforms that are almost inconceivably radical, including a constitutional amendment.
February 12, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
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