Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Information, Money and Politics

A post that helps put the mainly in mainly macro

                A Conservative Party Treasurer is caught on camera trying to solicit £250,000 from businessmen by offering to, among other things, feed their suggestions into the policy process at No.10. Having just passed NHS Reform that will greatly increase the involvement of the private sector, David Cameron suggests privatising parts of the road network. Are we seeing either end of a single process here?
                To which one might respond, as Chris Dillow does, plus ca change. Others, like Stuart Weir, take a less sanguine view. Let us look to the US, which we often need to do to see what happens next. Here we find Paul Krugman helping to uncover the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to Krugman ALEC drafts legislation which is often adopted word for word by US states, is funded by the usual right wing billionaires and corporations, and which has a particular interest in privatisation. It or associated organisations may as a result see advantage in having laws passed that increase business for some of those privatisations, like prisons for example, although of course they would never act on that interest. And equally evident is that this could not happen here.
                But what exactly is wrong with all this? Presumably it is legitimate for a lobbying organisation to draft legislation that furthers its interest. The organisation does not force legislators to pass it. And what is wrong with people with lots of money using it to fund such organisations? Of course corporations have interests, but it is up to politicians whether they are listened to or not.
                One thing we can object to is secrecy. It is generally regarded as good practice to declare personal interests where appropriate.  For similar reasons it seems appropriate that organisations and think tanks disclose the source of their funding. As George Monbiot has found, in the UK at least that is quite hard to persuade them to do. I cannot see any justification for keeping this information secret. The default position is that we should be automatically suspicious of any organisation that allows its benefactors anonymity, and discount its output accordingly.
                Why does disclosure matter? In an earlier post, I talked about how the media tends to have two ways of framing issues: either there is general consensus, or there are two sides to every question. With that two category model, it is quite important which category the media decides to put a particular issue into. Moneyed interests can manufacture controversy through think tanks, as has happened with aspects of the climate change debate. It is therefore important that everyone, including the media, know where organisations get their finance. More generally, the media needs to be a little braver in going beyond the spin and ‘following the money’.
                There are also limits on what money should be allowed to do in the political process. If some organisation or individual offered to directly buy your vote, this would be illegal in most places. Where it becomes less clear is when we move to political advertising. Now of course if we try and pretend that advertising is just about providing information, and that there are adequate safeguards to ensure advertised information is always ‘true’, then we might believe the more information people have the better. However those would be foolish things to believe.
                In a previous post I wrote ‘money buys votes’. Immediately on writing that my academic self thought, hold on, should I not qualify that a bit, but then I thought don’t be silly. Of course advertising in elections, as one commentator pointed out, does not guarantee that votes will follow, just as advertising a commodity can be more or less successful. But the correlation is surely positive. If advertising is about persuasion, or more pejoratively manipulating minds, then should we allow one political party a greater opportunity to do this than another? If the answer is even a qualified no, then I think we are entitled to put limits on how much money political parties or their supporters can spend. (In the UK this is done at election time, but the logic implies limits should operate at all times.) It also, in contrast to Chris Dillow’s view here, suggests that there should be limits on how much individuals are allowed to contribute to political parties. 

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