Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Campaign finance and rent-seeking

One of the main conservative complaints about "big government" (as I understand it) is a practice known as "rent seeking." The idea being that bigger government has more money, power, and favors to dole out—and thus will encourage individuals and businesses to bend government activities in such a way that benefits their bottom line.

But conservatives who complain about big government and rent seeking are, often, also very much in favor of loose campaign finance laws that allow big businesses and individuals to spend lots and lots of money ... trying to bend government activities in such a way that benefits their bottom line.

I thought about that a bit with a recent This American Life episode on campaign finance, which demonstrates--as observers already knew--that the pursuit of campaign cash is nearly a full-time job among members of Congress. I was particularly struck by this (paraphrased) quote from former Sen. Paul Feingold, who likened the process to legalized extortion:
"CEOs don't usually call you up and say they'd like to give you a lot of money. Usually it's the other way around."
Unlimited campaign money helps create the culture of rent seeking, in other words; it encourages senators and congressmen to solicit rent-seeking. The incentives are completely skewed.

Now, I imagine the conservative response to this is: "If government is smaller, then money people can still have their First Amendment rights to give cash to candidates they like without being a problem." But the torrent of money, it seems to me, ensures that government can't really get all that smaller; it'll just get bigger and more bloated and more interest-favoring in ways that benefit the people with money. One conservative pet cause--lifting limits on campaign contributions--almost certainly works against their declared main cause of making government smaller. I wonder which is more important to them?

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