Follow the Money

Why campaigns should be publicly financed

What would happen if the United States funded the Defense Department through private contributions? Would those sections of the country that contribute more to defense be better protected than those that gave less? If the interstate highway system were paid for by the donations of private citizens, how likely is it that the nation’s transportation system would serve the entire country and not just those who foot the bill?

The answers to such questions are obvious. Few would doubt that if these services were privately financed, their benefits would be biased toward the funders. The interests of the rest of the population would at best be an afterthought. Damaging as such a system would be, what then is to be said about a political system in which the wealthy provide the bulk of campaign financing? Certainly it would not be a stretch to say that a political system paid for by the affluent is one that will be disproportionately responsive to the well-off and less attentive to the needs of the rest of the population.

Funding for elections in a democracy should not depend on an economic elite. When the rich pay for electoral campaigns, the substance of politics is confined to the issues and policies that wealthy funders approve of. To be sure, the electorate gets to vote. But the choices presented to voters are, at best, those that are acceptable to the wealthy. At worst, of course, such a system is simply...

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About the Author

Jay Mandle is the W. Branford Wiley Professor of Economics at Colgate University. He is also director of development for Democracy Matters (