The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform

The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform

The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform

The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform


At first glance, campaign finance reform looks like a good idea. McCain-Feingold, for instance, regulates campaigns by prohibiting national political parties from accepting soft money contributions from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. But are such measures, or any of the numerous and similarly restrictive proposals that have circulated through Washington in recent years, really good for our democracy?

John Samples says no, and here he takes a penetrating look into the premises and consequences of the long crusade against big money in politics. How many Americans, he asks, know that there is little to no evidence that campaign contributions really influence members of Congress? Or that so-called negative political advertising actually improves the democratic process by increasing voter turnout and knowledge? Or that limits on campaign contributions make it harder to run for office, thereby protecting incumbent representatives from losing their seats of power?

Posing tough questions such as these, Samples uncovers numerous fallacies beneath proposals for campaign finance reform. He argues that our most common concerns about money in politics are misplaced because the ideals implicit in our notion of corruption are incoherent or indefensible. The chance to regulate money in politics allows representatives to serve their own interests at a cost to their constituents. And, ironically, this long crusade against the corruption caused by campaign contributions allows public officials to reduce their vulnerability by suppressing electoral competition.

Defying long-held ssumptions and conventional political wisdom, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform is a provocative and decidedly nonpartisan work that will be essential for anyone concerned about the future of American government.


The struggle to restrict money's influence in politics and thereby freedom of speech grows from a story of sin and redemption. A democratic government should obey the will of the people, but wealthy and powerful special interests corrupt public officials by offering campaign contributions in exchange for policy favors. Democracy is redeemed by public-spirited reformers who selflessly and heroically battle the special interests to enact laws that restrict and eventually prohibit private financing of political activity. Being a story of sin and redemption, this dominant narrative is emotionally satisfying: it lays out heroes, villains, and a happy ending. The power of this story should not be underestimated. It has contributed to the passage of laws and advanced the presidential ambitions of a prominent senator. But the satisfactions it offers do not make it true. We still should ask whether anyone sins all that much and whether the redemption on offer is likely to improve our world or agree with American political ideals. In the pages that follow, I argue that the reformer's story contravenes both the facts as we know them and the ideals that informed the founding of our republic. Not least of those ideals is the command that Congress make no law abridging freedom of speech.

I begin also to tell a different story about money, politics, and elections. In part, my story belongs to the genre of political realism. For all the talk of sin, redemption, and democracy, I see restrictions on money in politics as ways to advance the interests of those who propose such laws and regulations. In part, the aspirations of the partisans of restrictions are ideological: they see limitation of campaign finance as a necessary step toward equalizing political influence, which itself is a means to equalizing wealth. Beyond that fantasy lies a harder reality: campaign finance laws tend to advance the interests of those who write them, namely, incumbent legisla-

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