Money and politics

I’m a rightie, so I’m inherently skeptical of people who bemoan the evils of money in politics. Why should a guy with a million dollars have to give up his free speech rights? It’s his money. Why can’t he spend it to push whatever positions he wants? “Campaign finance reform” proposals nearly always end up functioning as a protection racket for established politicians.

Watching the flameout of billionaire-backed Jeb Bush and the rise of Donald Trump, however, it occurs to me that one could construct an alternative argument about the corrupting influence of money in politics. It’s not an argument I personally find very convincing — but it might be convincing for other people. I’m just throwing it out there for anybody who’s interested.

The traditional argument against money in politics has been the fear that wealthy individuals or corporations will simply “buy” elections. (Something like this does in fact happen — but it’s mostly confined to the unelected bureaucratic side of things, through well-known phenomena such as  regulatory capture. My response to that has always been: If you’re worried about regulatory capture, why would you want to hand even more power to unelected regulators?) In an age where leaders are subjected to greater media scrutiny than at any time in history, I just don’t think this is a realistic fear. Indeed, the perception that a particular candidate is being bankrolled by wealthy donors can sometimes cause a backlash among actual voters. If simply writing a check were enough to guarantee a result, why isn’t Jeb Bush cruising to the Republican nomination?

But Jeb’s candidacy does suggest another way that money could be a corrosive element in our political system. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much that billionaires and corporations will tilt the playing field for themselves — perhaps it’s that they interrupt the normal feedback loop that keeps politicians grounded in the real world. This distorts the political system and ends up leading to massive, destabilizing market corrections — like Donald Trump.

Consider the case of Jeb. If you’ve been paying attention to politics for the past decade, you will have noticed that there has been a huge, swelling undercurrent of resentment in the GOP about illegal immigration. The moneybags who finance Republican campaigns were completely blind to this, of course, because from their perspective, mass immigration was an unqualified good. They were wealthy enough to be insulated from nearly all the drawbacks while reaping nearly all the benefits. Hence the improbable ascendance of Jeb, a guy who likes to go around poking a stick in the eye of some of the GOP’s most loyal voters.

In a political system that was less influenced by big money, the GOP might have dealt with this tension in a healthy, productive way. But because so many elected officials could be paid enough not to notice a major issue among their constituents, the tension continued to build up, until voters snapped and turned to Trump. Instapundit is constantly making the point that “if the ‘respectable’ politicians won’t talk about something that matters a lot to the public, then the public will listen to people who do talk about it, even if they’re not ‘respectable’ people.”

Having pro-immigration poster boy Jeb Bush pushed onto them by wealthy donors may have just been the last straw for a lot of GOP voters. Here’s what’s interesting, though: For all the money spent by the donor class, they haven’t actually managed to get much out of it. Amnesty has been at the top of their agenda for nearly a decade, and they haven’t managed to move the ball any further down the field, at least through democratic means. The only significant accomplishments on that issue have been through Obama’s questionable use of executive power, which not even Jeb was willing to defend.

It turns out that while they couldn’t buy their preferred policy at any price, the donors COULD write checks big enough to muck up the normal political process so badly that we might be on the verge of having a President Trump.

“One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong,” notes David Frum in a perceptive essay in the Atlantic. This is particularly a problem with our current elites, who are increasingly isolated from the results of their own failures. Perhaps the problem with money in politics isn’t that the wealthy will turn us into virtual slaves — it’s that the wealthy will cluelessly barge in and fuck things up for everybody. Like a fool who can afford to buy a pet tiger and walk it around on a leash, these guys are playing with dangerous forces they don’t really understand.

Perhaps keeping money out of politics isn’t a matter of protecting the poor from the predatory impulses of the rich — perhaps it’s a matter of protecting the rich from their own worst instincts, because at the end of the day, we’re not stuck in the cage with them — they’re stuck in the cage with us. Campaign finance reform could be seen as a way of confiscating their guns, so to speak, to keep them from shooting themselves in the foot.

Like I said, I don’t really buy this — but it’s food for thought.


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