Managing the influence of money on politics? a.k.a the problem with democracy (or at least one of them)

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Murali

Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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17 Responses

  1. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Can the influence of money and individual power on public policy be mitigated by structuring power differently? The simple answer is No.

    There is no question as to whether or not money controls the press. The answer is obviously Yes. And it is an obvious detriment to the cause of the people and every democratic value. The process of manufacturing consent has been well-understood for centuries.

    Between the Scylla of campaign donations and the Charybdis of lobbyists, we must remember how Odysseus made his decision. Scylla, the six-headed monster, would only take individuals where Charybdis would take down the whole ship in the whirlpool. Thus Odysseus chose to sail nearest to Scylla.

    Which is the more dangerous, someone who gives you money or someone who influences your decisions once in office? You can’t get to the place where you can cast a vote if you don’t take the campaign dollars but you won’t get re-elected if you don’t take the advice of the lobbyists. The health insurance industries sent Karen Ignagni to confront a sitting President of the United States in the lion’s den of the Oval Office and told him to his face: if you attempt to pass Single Payer, we will run a billion dollars of attack ads against you.

    Obama flinched. Such is the power of money in the political process.

    Attempting to restrict the franchise to rational people is absurd. If there are any restrictions to consider, we might start by restricting candidacy to rational persons.

    Outsourced government has never worked. Nor will any attempt to restrict campaign donations or campaigning itself have any effect, not while the Citizens United remains the law of the land.

    No, here’s how reforms have always come about in the USA: we have a long run of increasingly stupid and irrelevant government, after which the voters give them the Bum’s Rush.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      If there are any restrictions to consider, we might start by restricting candidacy to rational persons.

      The thing about rational politicians and irrational voters is that public choice theory says that rational politicians in such a situation would pretty much do more of their current shenanigans.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Though you are a fine thinker and ask a commendable series of questions. I wouldn’t wish to offend your sensibilities for all the world and its pomps. You are from Singapore, a nation for which I have always entertained a grudging sense of admiration. But Singapore is not a fundamentally democratic society.

        I will again beat my little spoon against the bottom of my saucepan and reiterate a point have made before, to the point of tiresomeness. The USA has a Senate which is tasked with taking the long view of legislation and its consequences. The Federalist Papers at #62 lay out this problem in exquisite prose, from which I cannot extract any one paragraph without distorting its message, I would urge you read it in its entirety. Here is its conclusion:

        To trace the mischievous effects of a mutable government would fill a volume. I will hint a few only, each of which will be perceived to be a source of innumerable others.

        In the first place, it forfeits the respect and confidence of other nations, and all the advantages connected with national character. An individual who is observed to be inconstant to his plans, or perhaps to carry on his affairs without any plan at all, is marked at once, by all prudent people, as a speedy victim to his own unsteadiness and folly. His more friendly neighbors may pity him, but all will decline to connect their fortunes with his; and not a few will seize the opportunity of making their fortunes out of his. One nation is to another what one individual is to another; with this melancholy distinction perhaps, that the former, with fewer of the benevolent emotions than the latter, are under fewer restraints also from taking undue advantage from the indiscretions of each other. Every nation, consequently, whose affairs betray a want of wisdom and stability, may calculate on every loss which can be sustained from the more systematic policy of their wiser neighbors. But the best instruction on this subject is unhappily conveyed to America by the example of her own situation. She finds that she is held in no respect by her friends; that she is the derision of her enemies; and that she is a prey to every nation which has an interest in speculating on her fluctuating councils and embarrassed affairs.

        The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

        Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the few, not for the many.

        In another point of view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.

        But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people, towards a political system which betrays so many marks of infirmity, and disappoints so many of their flattering hopes. No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Voters are like computer users.Report

    • Avatar M.A. says:

      The health insurance industries sent Karen Ignagni to confront a sitting President of the United States in the lion’s den of the Oval Office and told him to his face: if you attempt to pass Single Payer, we will run a billion dollars of attack ads against you.

      An entire industry based on defrauding the poor and middle class.

      And nobody else sees why campaign finance reform is necessary? We could get single payer IF the threat of “you do this and we run a billion dollars worth of attack ads” was an idle threat, because running those ads in a campaign season broke campaign finance laws.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      There is no question as to whether or not money controls the press.

      Except…that’s not really true, is it? Not money, generally. Most people who own media outlets are rich, but most rich people don’t own media outlets.

      It seems to me that audience is distributed considerably more unequally than income in this country, and that the downside of this is much greater and much less speculative.Report

      • Avatar Mr. Blue says:

        The audience is advertisers, though. That’s the boat they really don’t want to rock.

        Here’s my thing, though: If you limit campaigns’ ability to raise money and advertise, and you limit the ability of outsiders to make statements for or against them, aren’t you just increasing the power of the media? There is a lot of media power in shutting other people up.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        What fallacious logic leads you to conclude every rich person must own a media company ere someone can say “Money controls the press” ?Report

  2. Avatar KenB says:

    I’ve been saying something like your first argument to anyone who’ll listen (i.e my wife, occasionally, if she’s trapped in a car with me and doesn’t have a book to read). Especially in the internet age, there’s no excuse for voters to make their decisions based just on those expensive commercials. If they’re going to put that little effort into it, then cutting out the money would just mean that their votes will be driven by other trivial or bogus reasons.Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    Good points Murali, I wonder what effect our 6 week campaign season affects the amount of lobbying in New Zealand vs. the US. Another factor that would affect the demand for campaign finance is the primary system. In effect, each American politician has to run for office twice.

    Another variable to consider is concentration of power. Given the strength of the party system in New Zealand lobbying a backbench MP is not all that useful, even you persuade them, they’ll still be expect to vote on party lines 99% of the time. You’d need to lobby a Minister, and there are only about 25 of them, and each one has a government department to offer an I dependant line of advice. Plus Ministers are high profile so they have a lot more scrutiny to deal with than a random congress critter would. Interestingly the limit of concentrating power is also anti-democratic.Report

  4. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    If even the famous MITI (now METI) is capable of being coopted, I don’t think removing democracy from policy making is going to actually fix anything. Bureaucrats and lackeys of government ministries are just as likely to be buyable, see: Modern China.Report

  5. Avatar Roger says:

    Random thoughts….

    Voting is an irrational , or at least a non rational, act. Your vote makes no difference. Thus investing time and effort to understand how to use your vote wisely is also other than rational. Yet some of us invest time and energy into it just the same. Hmmm.

    If you restrict money successfully as a direct contribution, you just get bigger problems elsewhere. An obvious one is that the way to influence elections is now to buy a cable news network.

    I fail to see the rich as a monolithic class. They tend to vote and contribute to both parties (over half voted for Obama) and they are often divided on just about every topic. I think money pretty much cancels itself out in a Madisonian way.

    What I do see as nefarious is using forced contributions. Union dues, where mandatory is reprehensible. And using taxpayer extortion to force us to pay salaries that go to forced dues for government service workers is beyond all common decency. It is the moral equivalent of torturing cute, cuddly kittens.

    I see exit rights and choice as being as important as democracy over the long haul. People need to be able to make choices that they actually live with. This begins to shift the issue from rhetoric to practicality. Choice and competition is my chant, not taking money out of politics.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

      Roger no-one would buy/found a cable news network and use it for partisan messaging 24/7.

      You are just being paranoid 😉Report

    • Avatar M.A. says:

      I fail to see the rich as a monolithic class. They tend to vote and contribute to both parties (over half voted for Obama) and they are often divided on just about every topic. I think money pretty much cancels itself out in a Madisonian way.

      Internecine arguments amongst a ruling class once they believe they’ve consolidated power are the norm. That doesn’t cancel out the fact that their money drowns out the speech of everyone else and it doesn’t cancel out the way they tilt the scales in their own favor.Report

      • Avatar M.A. says:

        What I do see as nefarious is using forced contributions. Union dues, where mandatory is reprehensible.

        Free Riderism is worse. You want all the benefits of a working group that engages to try to negotiate fair wages and benefits without the FYIGM-Libertarian style “fuck you, take it or leave it” individualized job offers and corporate policies against discussing wages with co-workers that come when there is an absolute asymmetry at the negotiating table, but you don’t want to be a part of that same group?

        Free riders are filthy thieves, the moral equivalent of embezzlers.

        And using taxpayer extortion to force us to pay salaries that go to forced dues for government service workers is beyond all common decency. It is the moral equivalent of torturing cute, cuddly kittens.

        “taxpayer extortion”? “forced dues for government service workers”?

        Really? That’s the line of horse shit you’re peddling?

        I’m a taxpayer, AND a worker, and neither of those changes whether I work for the government or work for some other entity. The mechanics of free riderism don’t change just because the employer is the government rather than another entity.

        We went round and round. You couldn’t prove a goddamn thing about your claims that “unions” were abusive. You had even to backpedal the claim about your “private union friend.”

        Just because Rush Limbaugh said it doesn’t make it so, Roger.Report

    • Avatar clawback says:

      Yeah, the fact at least two plutocratic factions manage to get their message out means we’re good. Diversity of opinion!Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Before it winds to a close, I just want to chime in and say how awesome this symposium has been. Not only is the broader structure of having so many brilliant people way in on a single topic remarkable to observe and participate in, but the topic chosen was such a fascinating study. And I can personally say that the learning that has gone on here has resonated beyond the abstract and hypothetical. This coming school year I am assuming official duties related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice at might school. As I have some preliminary conversations on what that means, believe me when I say that I have incorporated some of the takeaway from this symposium into that, especially as we seek to define our purpose as a school in promoting equity and equality.

    Thanks all around, to authors and commenters alike!Report