Ask noted election law professor Rick Hasen about political corruption and he might tell you a story. On the day McCutcheon v. FEC came out, he spoke at a California legal luncheon. When he quoted the Citizens United majority’s definition of political corruption (or its appearance), the audience laughed it up.
Particularly since McCutcheon, the liberal luncheon crowd considers the political system hopelessly corrupt. According to Hasen, the Court abets this regrettable situation by not adequately examining evidence of money’s corrupting influence; and by ignoring “political reality” when making pronouncements such as the Citizens United zinger.
Luckily ample data awaits the intellectually curious to empirically test Hasen’s assertions. And that evidence suggests it is he who ventures into political fantasyland.
To paraphrase Justice Brandies, states are the ‘laboratories of democracy.’ Nowhere is this truer than in campaign finance, where laws run the gamut from unrestrained free-for-alls to near complete prohibitions of political money.
If Hasen is correct, a ‘fit’ should exist between oppressive laws and corruption or its perception. In other words, states that vociferously regulate political money should be least corrupt. If so, Eureka! Theory meets evidence and restrictive laws are justified.
Accordingly, the six most corrupt states should be Alabama, Nebraska, Missouri, Oregon, Virginia, and Utah. None of these states limit contributions from individuals, political action committees, corporations, or unions.
For evenness, the six least corrupt should be Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Montana, and Rhode Island. All ban corporate and union contributions except Massachusetts and Montana, which allow unions to contribute small amounts. Of the six, Rhode Island has the highest individual limit at $1000 per candidate.
In sheer numbers, no fit exists. The states with the most public corruption convictions from 1998-2007 are Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, and California. Last on the list is freewheeling Nebraska.
What about per capita? Not counting the District of Columbia, which is first, they are North Dakota, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Montana. The bottom five include Nebraska and Oregon, as well as Iowa, which prohibits corporate, but allows unlimited individual, PAC, and union contributions.
Perhaps the time period is too compact. From 1976-2010 the most convictions per capita were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, South Dakota and North Dakota. The bottom five includes both Utah and Oregon.
To which Professor Hasen might retort, ‘yes but I’m talking about “appearances.”’ The New York Times surveyed journalists to gather perceptions on state-level corruption. The top five were Rhode Island, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Delaware. The bottom five were Oregon, Maine, Colorado, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
Thus in only one instance did the fit exist: the perception of Colorado. And an inverse fit existed eight times! In short, evidence fails Hasen.
But the issue of “political reality” still remains. Hasen insists money is skewing legislative outcomes. To some degree he is correct. Money does play a role in political results although social science suggests its effects are overblown. But Hasen ignores the many other factors that also determine legislative outcomes. To name a few: (i.) ideology; (ii.) personal relationships with other legislators; (ii.) relationships with lobbyists who may be former colleagues or staff; (iv.) public opinion; (v.) leadership priorities; and (vi.) personal ambition.
Without private contributions, all the above would still exist and be proportionally more influential. Would that be better? If so Hasen hasn’t proven his case.
Before Henry VIII relieved him of his head and propelled him to sainthood, Thomas More wrote a political satire. In it the protagonist, Raphael Hythloday, returns to England to describe his adventures in a faraway wonderland. The place is unlike anything of late-Medieval Europe. All the inhabitants work together for the common good; own no private property, and elect only virtuous political leaders. The place is called Utopia.
Academic “reformers” are modern day Hythlodays. They describe a wonderful political system awaiting us in Utopia if we just do as they wish. Their vision may please the California legal luncheon crowd, but political reality it’s not.
By Paul Jossey