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TinotopiaLog → Campaign Finance (23 Jan 2001)
Tuesday 23 January 2001

Campaign Finance

And how we should treat the cause of campaign finance problems, rather than the symptoms.

There is a lot of discussion these days about how best to regulate the financing of political campaigns in the United States. The intention is to remove control from lobbying organizations and corporations, and give it back to the people.

Certainly, the American government is largely bought and paid-for by moneyed interests. It costs an enormous amount to win and retain national office in the United States, and these funds can, for all practical purposes, only be obtained by appealing to those very rich entities in the best position to finance campaigns, be they individual billionaires, trade organizations, or large corporations.

Restricting the ability of any of these entities to give money to the political candidate of their choice is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, though. You — whether you are Joe Schmo or General Motors — have the right to spend your money to further your political opinions however you wish. Senator McCain’s intentions are good, but I don’t think he’ll be successful, even if he manages to get his legislation passed. It’ll simply be challenged by some large lobbying organization and found unconstitutional.

The problem is not that the government is bought and paid for — that’s just a symptom. The problem is that it’s possible to buy a controlling interest, as it were, in American government.

The Founding Fathers, some of the sharpest people ever to get together in one place, saw this possibility and provided for it in the original First Amendment, which was never ratified. It’s difficult to find the text of this Amendment, so I have included it here:

After the first enumeration required by the first Article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.

That is, in the early days of the United States, it was thought that one representative in Congress was ample to represent 30,000 to 50,000 people. This was roughly the level of representation afforded by the House of Commons in Britain in those days. Here are some ratios of representation in the ‘lower’ houses of various countries’ governments (all figures here are derived from the CIA World Factbook, and current as of mid-2000):

Country One rep. per
UK 90305
Germany 126215
France 102824
Canada 103923
Mexico 200699
Russia 324447
China 423575

The average is clearly around 100,000 citizens per representative for the wealthier and more democratic countries. It’s not really fair to lump Mexico in with China and Russia (or even Russia in with China), but it’s clear that the fact that these countries are not as democratic as Canada, the UK, etc. might be related to the fact that their governments are structurally less representative. Even if everyone in government in China is perfectly virtuous and free, the Chinese government is not going to be able to cater to the wishes and needs of its population as is the government of the United Kingdom.

Curious yet about what the ratio of representation in the United States in 2000 is?

One representative per 633,477 citizens. Or about half as representative as Russia, and one-third less representative than the government of the People’s Republic of China.

(N.B. These figures have changed following the 2000 census — see the update page for that information.)

Each member of the House of Representatives has to account for the needs of over 600,000 people.

Take any large American stadium, the new huge dome kind that hold about 70,000 people. Fill every seat. Now put another eight people on the lap of every person in the stadium.

Now get all of those people to agree on a single political opinion, that can be expressed as a vote in Congress.

It can’t be done, which is why the Congressman will just take money from, and vote on behalf of, the guy who owns the stadium and his friends sitting in the luxury boxes.

Triple the size of Congress, to about 1300 people, and we’d have about the same level of representation as our neighbors to the south. Then it might be possible for a Congressman to attempt to represent his constituency.

Better yet, return some power to the states, where the rates of representation, for the most part, are already where they should be. That’s one reason why the United States’ governmental structure was set up the way it was. Remember when I said, up in the fifth paragraph, that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were pretty sharp? It’s still true in this paragraph.

The whole point, you see, was to guard against the situation we find ourselves in today. In the 18th century, it was obvious to them that the interests of people in Virginia were different from the people in Massachusetts.

Consider, however, the 10th District of Virginia as it is today:

It includes parts of the Washington suburbs, densely populated places where Starbucks and The Gap are thick on the ground, and most people drive around in shiny new Mercedes. It also includes the Shenandoah Valley and a good part of the Blue Ridge — main ethnic group: Hillbilly.

This district includes a mall anchored by Nieman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, with stores like Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and chic European underwear stores in between; it also includes a mall anchored by JC Penney, Sears, and Belk, with a knife store, a place that sells decorative barrels, and a lot of empty storefronts in between. People living in those two communities have very divergent requirements for government, much as the merchants of Boston and the planters of Virginia had different needs in 1790.

Such a diverse group of people cannot adequately be represented by a single vote in Congress. And since the federal government, through coercion of the states, is directly in charge of nearly all policies these days — from medical care to drinking age to marijuana laws to the speed limits on the freeways to who can ride in which seats in a car — this is a problem.

Solve the problem of underrepresentation in the U.S. government — either by expanding Congress or (better yet) by returning to the states the power they’re supposed to have in the first place — and you’ll not only solve the campaign finance problem, but you’ll be able to watch the American popular antipathy toward government disappear.

    the raw material (warning: big page)
  • RESPONSE to a recent Slate article
  • NOTE
    George Will must read Tinotopia! On 14 January, 2001, he published this column, which makes much the same argument as I do here. His numbers are slightly inaccurate.

    Posted by tino at 14:00 23.01.01
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    I’ve added a link to your campaign finance piece from my website. See: http://www.thirty-thousand.org/pages/appendix.htm

    I suggest you correct the spelling of “Finanace” in your title (and also “finanace” in your URL).

    Posted by: Quidam at October 29, 2004 08:57 AM