Hail, small money

Ezra Klein altered my thinking a tad on campaign finance with his recent discussion of the effects of “big money” and “small money.”

On a gut level, I vastly prefer the passionate party activist who sends $200 to her favorite fire-breather to the lobbyist who coolly covers his bets by supplying $2,000 to both candidates in a race. One is acting as an engaged citizen. The other is a glorified bagman. But both have the potential to break our political system.

Just as big money is corrupting, small money is polarizing. And it’s polarization that probably poses the bigger threat to American politics right now. Big money, for example, generally wants to raise the debt ceiling. Small money is one reason Republicans in Congress came close to breaching it. Big money often wants the two parties more or less to get along; no one gets a tax break if legislation dies on the floor. Small money will turn on you if you dare cut a deal with the other side. Big money erodes what little trust Americans still have in their political system. Small money attacks the bipartisanship that, for better and worse, is required for the system to function.

When I said “altered my thinking,” I did not mean, of course, that he led me to where he (and many other MSM types) want election financing to go, namely in the direction of public financing.  I hadn’t really thought of this big money/small money distinction before, and I think the point about small money and partisanship makes a lot of sense.  But I part ways with Klein (who is mostly borrowing the ideas here from Sen. Chris Murphy) regarding the normative implications of this theory.  As is so often the case, Klein jumps from the positive to the normative and assumes that everyone will jump with him without even realizing it.

When Klein says that bipartisanship is “required for the system to function,” what he is really saying is “required for the Congress to pursue a centrist agenda.”  To his ilk, functioning means what we have seen steadily over the past century–an ever increasing scale and scope of the federal government (nicely illustrated in Marc’s recent picture of the uninterrupted trend in per-capita spending).

Klein goes on to say that we “need to change the rules and incentives to keep polarized parties from undermining the well-being of the country.”  Again, to translate, by “well-being of the country” he means “the centrist, statist, country that I value.”

One of my colleagues argued with me awhile back that it is not an unreasonable normative theory to give weight to the preferences of the median voter, which will always be centrist.  But those preferences, facilitated by bi-partisan cooperation over the years, have led to the steady creep, creep, creep of the federal state.  As we inch closer to a debt crisis, it is hard to imagine a centrist, bi-partisan solution to those problems unless someone’s feet are held to the fire through some combination of the many anti-majoritarian safeguards infused into the Constitution.

The problem with turning our Republic over to the median voter is that the median voter really sucks at math.  He is like the accountant that has hidden the cost column on his spreadsheet and cannot understand why the company seems to be unraveling.

Centrists (both those who lean right and those who lean left) have the right to argue their ideology as much as any non-centrist.  I just get really annoyed that their ideology is couched in terms of  “functioning” or “getting things done.”  Non-centrists want to get things done, too, they just have different visions of what that means.

As for me, nothing could be better describe as “getting things done” than putting the brakes on Leviathan.   Perhaps small money and anti-majoritarian safeguards can accomplish what bi-partisanship probably never will.

4 thoughts on “Hail, small money

  1. Ask your colleague what the median voter would have thought about interning Japanese-Americans during WWII, or the what the median voter in the 1960’s American South thought of Jim Crow, and so on and so forth. The median voter has no moral authority independent of the nature of the position held by the median voter.

    1. And in which we see illustration of the brilliance inherent in the government structure the founders created!

  2. I suspect you are correct that many define a functioning government as one that creates and passes an agenda of new or modified government actions. Personally, I would add doing nothing new, sometimes referred to as “grid lock”, to the definition of a functioning government. Which is to say I do not consider minority party obstructionism to be a problem; it is a feature rather than a bug.

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