You get what you pay for

One of my earlier posts suggested that OWS protesters ought to seize their power in numbers to get a response from the government. However my research now shows that this may be impossible given institutional constraints.

Let us investigate a central complaint of the protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement: the influence of private money on our public institutions. Consider the following:

“Only one quarter of 1 percent of the [American] population gave two hundred dollars or more to congressional candidates or the political parties in 1995—’96 election cycle and 96 percent of the American people didn’t give a dime to any politician or party at the federal level. America’s largest five hundred corporations, on the other hand, gave over $260 million to the democrats and republicans from 1987 through 1996” (Hertz 94).

The highly disproportional figures described above are symptomatic of underlying structural problems within American democracy. Due to increased reliance on “capital-intensive” campaigning amongst the electorate, the costs of running free and fair elections “can no longer be met by membership contributions, union funds (where they are given), or personal donations” (Hertz 94). Candidates must look to the private sector to fill this deficit. However, as Hertz states frankly, “corporations are not in the business of giving something for nothing” (Hertz 94). Elected officials, while perhaps without making explicit agreements, act upon the implicit influence of private funding. Thus the dynamic exists that private campaign contributions lead to the granting of favors for the private sector by the public sector.

Though often denied, the existence of this cycle is evidenced by countless historical cases. For example, “[in 1992] House democratic leader Richard Gephardt persuaded President Clinton not to tax beer as a means of financing his proposed health care plan; since 1988 Gephardt has received over $300,000 in campaign contributions from the Anheuser-Busch Company, the country’s largest brewer” (Hertz 95). This specific instance represents only a small perversion of power when compared to, for example, the favors granted to energy companies by Bill Clinton quid pro quo for enormous campaign contributions (for more read Hertz chapter five: Politics for Sale). Indeed, as Hertz concludes, “the list of links between campaign donations and votes in congress is almost endless” (Hertz 96).

So what is the overall effect on democracy? It would appear that, given the correlation between campaign donations and quid pro quo favorable legislation for donors, political rights are granted to those who pay for them. This cycle erodes democracy because the relative political power of the private sector undermines the voting power of the population. The integrity of our elections themselves is called into question when one considers that “access to elected political office in the United States is now almost exclusively the privilege of the seriously rich” (Hertz 93). In essence, the influence of private money in the public sector contributes to an overall decline in the quality of American democracy—thus severely limiting the ability of (economically disadvantaged) protesters to pass anything through congress.

What do y’all think? Can this structural problem be overcome? How do we do it? Looking for feedback….



2 responses to “You get what you pay for

  1. coffeeshoprhino

    In your research have you found anyone, especially from OWS, who offers a solution to issues of economic inequality, such as the one you bring up? It seems that OWS offers a critique of the existing system (or, more appropriately, critiques) but few solutions.

  2. I haven’t found any OWS people with ideas on how to change the system. However an analysis of Public Choice theory seems to suggest that voter education is extremely important in producing optimal results in a democracy because enlightened voters are better able to match their preferences with candidate platforms. As GMU’s own Professor Caplan states (in regards to economic policy):
    “The large systematic beliefs gaps between economists and the public shrink substantially as non-economists’ education level rises” (Caplan 12)
    “It is very hard to have all of the following: (1) rational voters, (2) competitive elections, (3) low political bargaining costs, and (4) significant democratic inefficiency… there is now a substantial literature that strongly rejects the hypothesis of voter rationality” (Caplan 18)
    Caplan’s research points to “rational irrationality”–the tendency of voters to remain ignorant of politics because they have very little ability to affect policy outcomes and because their cost of political ignorance is nil–as the root cause of democratic inefficiency. If voters are informed, however, political incentives align to produce optimal results.

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