Since the Citizens United decision, more or less everyone has decided that campaign finance laws are super important, and we gotta stop all the evil robber barons from stealing our politicians.  This is, as usual, a completely superficial response with high social desirability signalling value and low actually-gonna-do-a-goddamn-thing value.

First of all, most of the literature on the effectiveness of campaign contributions suggests that they do very little to sway elections anyway and that contribution limits aren’t obviously associated with less corruption. Moreover, voters are even less likely to respond to campaign advertising of any kind in environments with no campaign contribution limits because they suspect that the advertising in those environments must be “dirty” and therefore untrustworthy. So, the removal of campaign contribution limits seems to have the counter-intuitive effect of making those contributions less effective.

Of course, I’m not saying that I’m pro-campaign contributions.  Campaign contributions are not generally good for anyone except the politician and potential buyers, but the recent Supreme Court campaign finance decisions, if they have had an effect on things at all, represent only a very marginal increase in overall badness.  It’s akin to stubbing your toe when you’re dying of cancer.

Now some might say “Well, I don’t care about evidence.  Money in politics is bad, so there’s just gotta be some reasonable limit to campaign contributions.” A reasonable limit would be one which had the effect of preventing the offending behavior in question. In this case, that behavior is something like undue influence on either politicians or the citizenry through campaign advertising. Based on the available research though, campaign contributions don’t seem to have the level of influence claimed by proponents of campaign contribution limits nor do campaign contribution limits seem to bring about less corrupt government. Perhaps new, better research will prove otherwise, but until such research arrives, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of backing for the necessity or efficacy of campaign contribution limits.

Far too many people assume that passing a law against something means that that something will stop. Here, the assumption is that if you put a limit on the amount of money a person can give to politicians, that person will stop giving money after they’ve reached that amount. This represents an understanding of the interplay between politicians and their financial supporters that lacks nuance. Really, what campaign contribution limits do is impose a barrier that limits further contributions to those funders who can successfully navigate the complex array of campaign finance laws in order to give money to their preferred candidate anyway. This could be through PACs, straight up back room envelope full of money deals, or who knows what else – I’m not a professional lobbyist. The juice is that money is still going to politicians, but it’s only money from especially wealthy and crafty people, i.e. the supposed primary targets of campaign contribution limits.  As with a lot of regulation, campaign contribution limits mostly serve as a placebo.  They ease the public’s cognitive dissonance about continuing to work within a system which very clearly stopped serving them a long time ago, if it ever did, while maintaining the status quo as much as possible. After all, politicians and corporations worked really hard to gain access to all that wealth and power; it would be kinda silly for them to install actually effective limits on their ability to gain more wealth and power.