by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Now that the elections are — mostly — over for another two-year cycle, it might be a good time to discuss the amount of money spent on electoral campaigns. The Washington Examiner offers an interesting perspective.
Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig was so concerned about money in politics that he started a SuperPAC this year that spends money to sour people on SuperPAC spending. So far, he has soured them on his own endorsed candidates — which, we have to say, is a good start. He spent $1.6 million in New Hampshire’s Senate GOP primary on a candidate who got only 23 percent (or about 27,000 votes). Instead of taking this strong hint that money can’t actually buy you political love, he doubled down, putting another $7.6 million into various races and hoping for several unlikely miracles in tonight’s returns.
But the truth is that Americans don’t spend too much money on politics. Far from it. If anything, they don’t take the matter seriously and so don’t spend enough. Based on late projections from the Center for Responsive Politics, a grand total of $3.67 billion will be spent in this two-year cycle on the 471 congressional races to be decided today, which is equal to about one-twentieth of one percent of U.S. federal spending. As the Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams pointed out last week, this is also much less than what we spend on beer ($83 billion), lottery tickets ($69 billion), pornography ($11 billion), potato chips ($6 billion) and Taco Bell ($6 billion). According to White House estimates, Americans spend nearly 60 times as much each year ($109 billion) on retail purchases of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and meth.
Even so, the campaign-finance obsessives are concerned that money can corrupt the political process. They are correct, but they are looking to the wrong place for the corruption. They are confusing the symptom for the disease.
The only way to reduce election spending while respecting the right to political speech is to remove the artificial incentives the government creates for political spending. The federal government exercises tighter control over the economy than ever before, and it spends $3.5 trillion annually, ladling out billions upon billions of dollars in “stimulus” and other grants and contracts to the politically connected. No surprise, then, that people try to connect themselves politically by donating and spending on campaigns.
If Lessig’s name rings a bell, he’s the expert who predicted for Carolina Journal Radio/CarolinaJournal.tv. in 2011 that a key element of North Carolina’s taxpayer-financed election campaign scheme, “rescue funds,” would not withstand the U.S. Supreme Court’s scrutiny.