There seems to be a resounding consensus on the internet that private campaign funding is a bad idea because it usually leads to corruption and unfairness. Are there any good reasons to think otherwise given that in the status quo election campaign funding is allowed?

  • 2
    "There seems to be a resounding consensus on the internet that private campaign funding is a bad idea" - says who?
    – Philipp
    Aug 3, 2015 at 6:48
  • A google, bing and msn search would suggest that there is. Aug 3, 2015 at 18:02
  • 4
    Be wary of what search engines show you when it comes to looking for opinions. A side effect of their personalization algorithms is that everyone gets more search results which agree with them than those which contradict their viewpoint. This effect is called "the filter bubble".
    – Philipp
    Aug 3, 2015 at 22:10
  • You should probably tag the country you're referring to. Aug 5, 2015 at 12:38
  • @PointlessSpike I actually think this discussion is relevant to any democratic republic rather than just one country.
    – lazarusL
    Aug 5, 2015 at 14:43

1 Answer 1


There are two economic theories/explanations for advertising. The first is that advertising is informative; it conveys relevant information to people who would otherwise not have it. This makes the market more competitive and leads to more people getting what they want.

The second is that advertising is persuasive (a discussion starts on page 3). In this case advertising actually effects people's preferences. If advertising is persuasive, then companies are stuck in a game where they must spend money advertising to persuade, but their competitors do so as well. In the end, this leads to an equilibrium where every firm spends money on advertisements and the consumers have to pay for them in higher prices.

The same holds for political advertising. If the effect of the ads paid for by the massive private campaign contributions are more persuasive, then your 'resounding consensus' is correct. If the ads are more informative, then your resounding consensus is incorrect, and limiting campaign contributions will just lead to fewer voters getting the information they need.

Personally, I find political ads to be almost without exception both unpersuasive and uninformative, so my intuition doesn't seem to be helpful. The empirical work in this matter is tough, since quality candidates also attract money; a tricky endogeneity problem. One attempt to find the relationship between campaign spending and election results is Steven Levitt's 1994 paper which uses cases where the same candidates face each other in US House elections to help get around the issue of comparing apples to oranges. His somewhat surprising result is that money is fairly ineffective at swaying elections. If this is actually insightful into how voters make decisions, then there's little risk in private campaign contributions swaying elections. There's some inherent logic to this as well; if voters were actually stupid enough to be swayed by black and white photos with silly character assassination or contentless dribble with patriotic music and bald eagles in the background, then democracy has much deeper problems.

An important corollary to this is that politicians would have to be smart, notice that adds were ineffective and thus not pay favors to their campaign contributors. This might actually be the trickier sell, but corruption is already somewhat tough to pull off unless it involves billions in farm subsidies.

Finally the risks of having public campaign finance is that we might end up with the government stifling rising stars; if someone's not big enough to get public funding and not allowed to use private funding; they might be stuck on the outside never able to get their good ideas into the race. And the flip side to the coin, with public funding there's the risk of large amounts of public money being wasted on candidates with no chance of being elected and nothing to add to the debate.

Edited: I forgot one major point. Independent of the other arguments, many (including the US Supreme Court) consider the ability to buy TV spots, signs, and bumper stickers a fundamental part of free speech. The philosophical position being that free speech is so essential to a free society that giving the government power to regulate it endangers the very core of a democracy. Limiting private campaigning is tricky; who's to say what's campaigning? Could the fact that politics stack overflow hosts a question asking what experience Donald Trump has in government count as materially contributing to Hillary Clinton's campaign? Those who support this argument would rather not risk tyranny in the many regulations accompanying regulation of campaign contributions. A more moderate position along these lines would hold that campaign finance laws should be as simple as possible and err on the side of free speech.

All that being said, I don't think any of these arguments are airtight and reasonable people can disagree on this issue.

  • @user45891 Interesting! That seems equivalent to unlimited private contributions though. Can't parties just ask for tons of money and then pay back from private sources?
    – lazarusL
    Aug 3, 2015 at 15:24
  • I'm sorry there is a limit. You can only demand as much as you raise yourself
    – user45891
    Aug 3, 2015 at 15:33
  • Actually, your argument is valid. I read other study by Raymond Kuhn, who measured the power of ads in France (2012); what he found isn't surprise. Most people know who are they're going to vote for and the neutrals, which the ads are developed for, don't have enough power to change their minds for one or another candidate.
    – nelruk
    Aug 3, 2015 at 18:19
  • Didn't 538 have an extensive post on the (lack of) marginal usefulness of ads?
    – user4012
    Aug 4, 2015 at 18:47
  • You are using "zero sum" incorrectly. If everyone loses, that's negative sum. Sep 12, 2018 at 16:23

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