The Origins of Modern
Campaign Finance Law
The stories reformers tell about campaign finance have heroes who practice politics or work for government, allegedly pursing noble purposes and the public interest. The villains in their tales are always in the private sector, often engaged in business and always pursing their private interests to the detriment of the common good.1 One chapter of this narrative ended with Watergate, when idealists saved the United States from the Nixon gang and then passed campaign finance laws to clean up the corruption and restore the integrity of politics. But, of course, evil rarely remains at bay: Lucifer is always at hand to tempt the weak of will. Angels of reform must always attack his lures of selfishness and greed.
This story about campaign finance has satisfied its audience for a long time, but as we have seen, it is at best incomplete and at worst false. Apart from positing a battle of good and evil, the story assumes that Congress legislates in the public interest, a conjecture belied by “even the shallowest examination of congressional policymaking.”2 Another story, at once less charitable and fantastic, should be told about money in politics.
This alternative story begins with premises that are both realistic and Madisonian. Rather than assume that politicians and bureaucrats tend to be devoted to the public good, this story assumes that human beings, whether employed by government or by private concerns, are all pretty much alike, capable of benevolence but mostly self-interested. This shift in assumptions leads to a different narrative. Gone are the heroes and villains of the reform story, the victimizing moneybags and victimized politician. Instead politicians use political power to further their own goals rather than the public interest.3 Campaign finance restrictions might well