The Right, The Unions, and Campaign Finance


Ezra Klein wonders why conservatives upset about the disproportionate political influence of labor unions don’t support the kind of measures that might reduce the influence of labor and business alike:

The income of many corporations — Boeing is a good example — depend on government contracts. Tax policy is also important when it comes to setting take-home pay. Then there are rules, regulations, bailouts, backstops, and all the other ways that the government helps structure and shape the economy. And “through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout,” corporations “have enormous influence over who gets to bargain with them.” And in the aggregate, of course, the business community spends much more than the unions — in 2010, business groups spent $1.3 billion, while unions spent $93 million.

Given that disparity, it’s not at all clear to me why I should worry more about the money unions spend on elections than the money corporations spend on elections. But more to the point, I’d like to reduce both: The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party joined forces against the DISCLOSE Act. But the DISCLOSE Act was a good bill! And the Fair Elections Now Act is a better one. It’s curious that the alarm conservatives feel when they look at the nexus of moneyed interests and government power doesn’t translate into support for the sort of laws that might weaken that link.

One could speculate on the motives, but to me this seems like a sub-set of one of my big grievances with conservatives and libertarians. I find that right-of-center people are very good at noting ways in which the political process is at times pathological. The technical term for noting the existence of problems in the political system while also having absolutely nothing constructive to say about how to improve things. There’s even entire divergent disciplines such that complaining that the political process is unfair while also having right-of-center political opinions is called “public choice economics.” The usual response to these complaints is something like liberals are upset at how the rich and powerful have disproportionate political influence, but that’s why some of us think the government should be as small as possible. The problem here is that you need to apply a “public choice” analysis analysis to that idea. If there’s a state, and if the rich and powerful have massively disproportionate influence over what the state does, then the state will tend to advance the interests of the rich and the powerful. There’s no substitute for a well-functioning political system.