Monday, May 01, 2006

Money and Politics (and theology)

At Redstate, I started to reply to a post about John McCain and his preference for "getting money out of politics" over defending the boundaries of free speech.

Then I decided to post it here, instead.

I know people believe that money corrupts politicians -- that somehow, you can pour money, either into their campaigns, or directly into their pockets, and this is widespread, and terribly effective.

Only it's not true!

Now, it does happen: Randy Cunningham comes to mind. There's one example.

Only, what he did was already illegal; so-called "Campaign Reform" couldn't prevent it; and insofar as he's been investigated, prosecuted, removed and sent to prison, it's hard to see how the system "failed" -- other than to keep him from succumbing to temptation in the first place. (Now there's an idea for a law!)

And, it's worth noting -- his corruption wasn't to switch from being pro-defense to anti; nobody bought a different ideology from him. Rather, he appears to have figured out he could get paid (twice) for doing more or less what he was ran for Congress to do, on his regular salary: vote for defense spending. (I.e., if you know his district, and what he ran on, you know he was elected to be a pro-defense congressman, among other issues.) So, while he was "bought," his ideology was not "bought."

And Randy Cunninghams happen from time to time. But to argue that Congress is filled with Randy Cunningham requires a kind of conspiracy-theory thinking: "of course I don't have evidence! That just shows how clever and how terrifyingly powerful they really are!"

There are so many manifestly false ideas that this "money corrupts" theme relies on.

1. That money is somehow scarce in politics, so you have to sell your soul to get it.

If you're a reasonably credible candidate in a competitive race, wherever you are from Tom Coburn (or Jesse Helms of yesteryear) on the right, or Ted Kennedy or Hilary Clinton on the left, you're going to raise lots of money just being who you are! Folks have the cause-and-effect exactly backwards: Hilary Clinton doesn't vote as she does because of the money she raises; she raises the money, because of how she votes! Like or hate her, but how is that "corrupt"?

2. Money wins elections.

Of course it helps, but it's hardly the key thing. If that were true, we'd have President Steve Forbes today, as the successor to President Ross Perot.

You can find examples of folks who spend less, but spend it better, who win; and you can find examples of folks who spend less, period, and win, because just having more money doesn't make people want to vote for you. As the saying goes, you can put a ribbon on a pig, but it's still a pig.

3. "There's too much money in politics."

Now, that is a virtually meaningless statement. First, what is "too much"? Second, the underlying assumption is the more money "in politics" makes things worse. Please demonstrate the truth and reasonability of that statement.

After all, why not argue that there's not enough money in politics? That politics is improved by more money?

Money pays for organizers to draw people into campaigns as workers, to register and mobilize voters, to advertise issues and positions, to generate interest in actually voting...

Money is spent on wages, advertising, printing, events, buys or rents goods and services, and thus generates economic activities -- i.e., it provides jobs and feeds people...

Money is a measure of value; how much money is "in politics" compared with how much is in anything else?

Newt Gingrich -- of whom I am no fan -- used to point out how much money is spent around elections, compared with how much is spent on advertising this or that consumer product. Which is more significant, in the larger scheme of things: who becomes your congressman, or which laundry soap you buy?

My point is, it's not the money, it's the causes for which it's spent.

When I did fundraising for political causes, before entering the seminary, I felt no shame in asking for large checks; if the cause wasn't worthy, then even small amounts would be too much; if it is worthy, then what is "too much" money for a good cause? I'd meet with folks who had money, and who cared about the issue. I'd open the meeting by saying I was there to ask him or her to consider a gift of, say, $10,000 or $50,000 or $100,000. And the person with whom I was meeting would often say, "that's an awful lot of money you're asking for!" and act indignant.

My response? "I know it is, but to tell you the truth, I wish I could ask you for ten times that amount--because of the good we could do with it. But, I went about as far as I thought I could get away with. But I don't apologize for wanting to win this fight, and trying to get there as fast as possible!"

I know St. Paul is quoted as saying "money is the root of all evil." We can spend all kinds of time examining that passage, how its translated, its context, etc. I think it makes far more sense to say, love of money -- misunderstanding money's place in the larger scheme of things -- is evil.

But this idea persists, and there are similar ideas about other things. Guns, for example, or politics in general, being somehow "dirty" or "bad."

I submit that such thinking is, at its root, fundamentally at odds with a Biblical, and more specifically, Christian (and even more specifically, Catholic) understanding of the world.

In one sense, things are morally neutral -- i.e., their goodness or evilness comes in the use to which they are put (I suppose one can think of things for which no good purpose could be conceived, such as a nuclear bomb, or a biological weapon. Fair enough. But then, the "use" is imbedded in the fashioning of the thing. Even then, one of these days we may have an asteroid heading straight for earth, and perhaps then, for example, we'll have a definitely good use for nukes. In any case, the broader point remains).

On a more fundamental level, all things are essentially good -- they are created realities, and reflect the Creator in some way, and even participate in his existence -- because nothing can exist unless God causes them, at all times, to exist. Nothing -- no, not even the demons in hell! -- are (or can be) intrinsically evil. Rather, "things" and created realities are by nature good, and ordained for good, and have to be twisted or corrupted to become, in some sense, evil. (Thus, the demons in hell are evil insofar as they are once-good creatures who have been so horribly corrupted. Even then -- shocking as it sounds, some good remains in them: they exist, for one; and whatever gifts or abilities God endows spiritual creatures with. There can be no being in which absolutely no good exists.)


Oberon said...

.......what is the most important thing?

Fr Martin Fox said...


It may be the fault of my verbosity, but just what part of my post are you asking about?

Fr Martin Fox said...

Field Marshall writes:

'You're really only talking about immediate return "hard money," and even then I don't think that you make a strong case for it. When a congressperson has large benefactors giving them money to run for office, are we really to believe that it doesn't cause a conflict when voting their conscience will possibly hurt their war chest? Sure, one company's drop in sponsorship (and let's be frank, a corporation giving a politician money is sponsoring that politician the way they sponsor a show on PBS) won't make a huge difference. But a long congressional session of voting for labor and the environment could anger a lot of companies that are giving you money to get re-elected. And lets not forget that a large percentage of congress people retire to lobby (for amazing wages) on behalf of the industry that sponsors them the most.'

Field Marshall, it's pert-near impossible for me to prove the negative, i.e., to somehow deny that any candidate has ever been influenced to trim this way or that, because of a contribution.

So I won't try.

But I will tell you, I believe the process you suppose happens -- that the enticement of contributions induces a politician to adopt certain positions -- does not happen to any significant degree. And I say that, for the reason I already told you: There is plenty of money out there that will gravitate to politicians of all political opinions.

After all, if you're correct, why would anyone bother running against anyone? Just buy them off! Wouldn't that be a lot easier?

Look: someone decides to run for office. He thinks about what he stands for, what he cares about. Probably he already identifies with a party, but maybe not. If he's doing this step-by-step, he's going to figure out who cares about the same things he cares about, and go ask them for money.

Now, if he just goes to the party-oriented money people, some of them will say, "tone this down," or "push this issue." But what also happens is, these folks ask: what are the issues you think will win this race? And if they think you have a good answer, they'll give you money, whether those are their issues or not--because they support you because of the party.

Now, this assumes no primary or convention. In that case, then of course you say, to beat all the others, I need to win more votes. And money is important, but only insofar as it helps you make known where you stand. I.e., it's ultimately what you, as a candidate, offer, that matters.

Again, the idea that you sell your position on an issue to the highest bidder is silly. No need! If you're prolife, you get prolife money; if you're pro-abortion, you get their money.

And if you don't know how to raise money like this, then the evolutionary theory of politics comes into play: you ain't fittest, so you ain't surviving!

Fr Martin Fox said...

You can find examples to disprove anything but the fact is that in 2002, over 95 percent of U.S. House races and 75 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money. Money talks. And certainly, there are other factors to consider in those races (imcumbency, etc.), but that's still a pretty amazing relationship between money and victory.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Yes, but your response assumes, without demonstrating, cause-and-effect. Do they win because they have more money; or do they have more money because they have all the advantages (incumbency, a district tailored to their party and ideology, etc.)?

It's certainly true that if you're a 10-term congressman, in a district gerrymandered to give you every advantage, you're going to get a lot more money. So what?

For one, the challenger doesn't really need as much money. In that district, do you really think increasing money to the challenger is going to change the result? Try it another way. Given the gerrymandering, suppose each candidate had exactly the same amount of money. Just for kicks, take away incumbency, too -- two challengers. Who would you bet would win? I'm betting on the guy who belongs to the party for which the district is gerrymandered.

In other words, the money differential is irrelevant to that winner's victory!

So, yes, politicians who have advantages get more money -- even from folks who might otherwise give to a challenger, if they thought it would be worthwhile. So, when Democrats controlled Congress, business gave a lot more to them.

But guess what? If you're that 10-term Congressman, raking in all that dough, what do you really owe those folks giving money to you, who don't share your philosophy? What do they have to hold over your head, if you don't "behave"? Not much!

I'll say it again. Money is important, but not the key to victory. Anyone who says this or that is the key to winning elections is, in my judgment, mistaken. Elections are complicated things, naturally, given that they are the collective decision of an awful lot of people, not only those who do vote, but those who don't. And, remember, in any given election, someone must win! Meaning, sometimes the reason someone wins has less to do with his own actions, and more to do with the deficiencies of his opponent.

But to win, you have to have votes from voters -- and while money is abundant, from all ideological directions, votes -- now, those really are a scarce commodity! Money helps a candidate, only to the extent it helps him present what else he has to offer, to voters.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Field Marshall:

I believe all citizens, and all voluntary groups of citizens, have every right to spend their money to "influence the democratic process." It's called the First Amendment; and it includes unions, trade associations, and yes, companies. (My only quarrel with union political activity is where it derives from involuntary association; but my solution isn't to limit the activity, but to make that association voluntary.)

Anonymous said...


What about the lack of money that keeps good candidates out of the running, especially in the primaries?

I'm a bit soured by politics, because I used to live in New Jersey, and now live in Pennsylvania and work there.

I noticed that the people that I would have liked to have voted for never made it to the main election.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Field Marshall:

In my judgment, a number of current election laws and regulations on political activity do violence to the First Amendment. That the U.S. Supreme Court says otherwise means little -- their decision has some finality, but it certainly has no infallibility.

The First Amendment applies to individuals and to groups -- it explicitly protects the right of the people "peaceably to assemble," and -- by the way -- to lobby: "to petition...for redress of grievances." A long line of jurisprudence has always seen the First Amendment including freedom of association.

You ask, but what if "money were removed from the equation"?

To be blunt, although I have a guess, I don't care. I oppose you or anyone using government this way. I assert that no one has the right to "remove" money from the equation.

Once you start down that path, you must pursue ever more restrictive laws to achieve that end. Controlling spending of money is controlling people and that's the road to tyranny.

Already we have an office of censor of political speech: the FEC has authority to examine the text of advertising and literature, and indicate what can, and what cannot, be said, and who can say it, and who can't. This is to spell out and police the line between "electioneering" and "issue advocacy." If I say, "vote for John Doe," that's electioneering; if I say, "vote prolife," that's issue advocacy. What if I say, "John Doe voted against Bill 1234, the Prolife Act; urge him to change his vote." That's lobbying; that's pure First Amendment activity: petition for redress of grievances.

Only that, now, is unacceptable to Congress, so McCain-Feingold further constricted the rights of issue-advocacy near election day.

Next, groups acted under existing law -- so-called "527s" -- and now, the politicians complain, oh, gotta stop that. And on and on.

Should you be allowed to write a letter and send it to, say, 20 or 50 friends, urging them to vote for John Doe? Should you be able to get together with another friend to organize this? Or to make phone calls?

If you're going to say, "take the money out," then that has to be illegal -- because those activities either cost money, or they have to be assigned a monetary value, as "in kind" contributions.

And if you say, oh, I wouldn't go that far, then you're saying, let's just take some people's money out -- and its the polticians in power who would decide that.

Hmmm. Politicians in power decide who gets to do things that have monetary value -- i.e., make phone calls, send letters, run ads, etc. -- advocating new politicians . . .

If you don't see the tyranny in that, then we have fundamentally different visions of freedom.

Dad29 said...

Sensenbrenner wins his races and spends--what--$200.00 to do it? (The number is ridiculously low no matter what the number actually is...)

Human Events ran an article a number of years ago bolstering your theory, Father--they showed that the money follows the politics, rather than the opposite.

McCain's operating with a guilt complex dating back to the S&L scandal, in which he was a minor player. His problem is with his own ethics, and that's easily demonstrated by his dumping Wife #1 to marry the current wife--a very well-set heiress.

And for those who claim the above is ad hominem--nope. It's the facts. Most 'moralists' in public life (not all...) tend to be very vigorous about the moral failing which they see best, and it's usually their own failing that is best seen.

Anonymous said...

A good post Fr Fox. Our regulation of election campaigns is also a mess with the Governing Party spending 455k of public money (which is a lot here considering overall spend is around 2m )on their re-election, busting through the spending limit and getting away with it. They whined that their Party would be bankrupted if they were forced to pay it back.

Most of these regimes around the world one can drive a bus through them - none work and most are based on the notion that spend = votes or worse brought votes. In order to protect voters they actually insult them. Most are also an intrusion into free speech.

I don't mind anybody spending what they want on their election and others freely donating to their campaign - what I dislike is the direct and indirect state funding. Here because we have a proportional system of representation the two big parties capture most state funding and divide it between themselves and thereby in part perpetuate their dominance.

Most incumbent politicans around the world have one thing in common: snouts in the taxpayer's trough. I must say the extent to which the two party system is legislated and publicly funded in the US is probably greater than in any any other democracy.

Anonymous said...


You may be right that the money follows the vote. And that is a very strong force in political evolution. Those who vote in a certain way (say to maintain drug prices at a high rate) find that they are more likely to get get more financial support and therefore be more likely to be elected. Eventually you have a strong majority voting for higher drug prices whether it is good for the population or not. Oh, by drug prices I mean medical supplies, but it might work for the street drugs too.

As for money being available for all positions, I don't believe it. Money is only available in large amounts to those that have money in large amounts. And who is going to spend money in large amounts without some hope of a return on it? Although sometimes it is not always clear where the return is, as in how many are fighting the immigration reform because they want to keep the illegal immigrant here so that they can take advantage of them.

But I do agree, that the election laws are throughly screwed up.

Mike L