John Locke Update / Research Newsletter (Archive)

Public Choice and Self Funded Campaigns

posted on in Economic Growth & Development

With Donald Trump funding his own campaign for president—as opposed to relying on the contributions of individuals and businesses—we are hearing a number of claims about the virtues of self funding as a model for political campaigns.  The argument is made not only by Trump himself, but by many others including his detractors, that self funding eliminates or at least ameliorates the influence of special interests who might otherwise be contributing to the candidate’s efforts.

The argument goes something like this. The candidate who “pays his own way” and is not accepting contributions from rich donors (other than himself, of course) or large corporations is beholden to no one. By funding his own campaign he doesn’t have to worry about “returning any favors” and the electorate doesn’t have to worry that he will be a tool of the big banks, big oil, big unions, the environmental lobby, etc. once he assumes office. As one advocate has put it regarding the campaign of Donald Trump, “he will be beholden to no one but the people.”

But is this really the case? In fact, what is called public choice theory, which, in part, analyzes economic influences on the political process, would argue otherwise. Public choice economists, like Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan and his co-author Gordon Tullock, argue that people, whether in the economic or the political spheres, behave in ways that are consistent with their self interest. It is because of this that public choice economics leads to the prediction that large campaign contributors or large blocks of contributors—like unions or trial lawyers—will have some influence on the decisions of those that they are contributing to. This arrangement furthers the self interest of both the donor and the politician.

But there is likely to be a silver lining to this otherwise dark cloud that hangs over the political process. In a democratic society, where there are likely to be many big donor contributors to any given candidate or party, the influences will often be diverse and competing. For example, while there may be large industries that compete with foreign producers that could benefit from protectionist trade policies, there are likely to be other industries that benefit from the lower prices that free trade delivers. If both of these industries are contributing money to the political process, they will be tugging on that process from opposite directions, counterbalancing one another.

When it comes to the impact of self financing, public choice analysis would not predict that the special interest effect on politics would disappear but that the number of special interests would be reduced to one. Instead of being beholden to many contributors, possibly with competing interests, the self funding candidate is only beholden to the interests of one contributor—himself. This is likely to be particularly true when the politician/office holder is a business person whose interests may be closely linked to public policy decisions that he has influence over or, in the case of someone with influence over judicial appointments, interpretations of the Constitution, for example the eminent domain clause of the 5th Amendment.

In June 2019 Roy Cordato retired from his full time position as Senior Economist and Resident Scholar at the John Locke Foundation and currently holds the position of Senior Economist Emeritus at the Foundation. From January 2001 to March 2017,… ...

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