Not the fix everyone thinks it is. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
Not the fix everyone thinks it is. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

In despair over money's influence in politics, progressives have fitfully embraced plans for public financing of campaigns. Via Tyler Cowen, I see that a new paper from Andrew Hall explores the effects of these sorts of programs.

First, the good news: Public campaign funding would probably reduce the influence of “access-oriented interest groups,” which are made up of well-financed power players who use their campaign donations to get the ear of candidates. It would also reduce the bias toward incumbents, which I guess can be good or bad depending on how you feel about your local congressman.

Now, the bad news: That doesn’t necessarily lead to better political outcomes. When the money goes away, the candidates who are elected tend to be more partisan and divided. “Good government” may mean “more extreme government” -- which, at least at the national level, may mean “government that can’t get anything done.”

This makes a certain amount of sense, when you think about it. Access-oriented groups care about getting things done. I may think that a lot of this stuff shouldn’t be done, and I’m sure you agree (though perhaps we are thinking of different stuff). But fundamentally, access-oriented groups are less interested in making emotive statements about free markets, sexual liberty, respect for immigrants or whatever you care to name than they are about getting actual laws passed. That gives them an incentive to favor candidates who will give them legislative results rather than the moral satisfaction of sticking to their principles.

The average voter -- in particular, the average primary voter -- cares a lot about moral purity and expressive politics. So if you disempower the money, you empower the ideological purists who want candidates first and foremost to demonstrate fidelity to shared principles. Even if they nominally care about “getting things done,” they usually don’t have the time or the connections to assess whether their candidate is good at passing laws. And because passing laws usually requires substantive cooperation and compromise with those jerks on the other side of the aisle (taking a partisan proposal and claiming that it’s “really” something that the other side supports doesn’t count), the base is just as apt to punish an effective legislator as to reward him.

Unfortunately, we can’t just run the government on autopilot, because right now the autopilot is already set to produce rising levels of debt unless taxes are raised or entitlement spending is reined in. The current gridlock has delivered two parties that are each unwilling to seriously consider the other side of that decision. And that’s without public financing of campaigns. How much worse would it be if access-oriented groups were less influential?

If you want pure government, you might well want to support public financing of campaigns. However, if you want effective government, then you should probably be lobbying for more money in politics, not less.

To contact the writer of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.