The conservatives and democracy: Part I election financing

Warning this one is long but I think a worthwhile read.

In Maclean’s, Andrew Coyne took the position that the Conservative plan to slash the 1.95 per vote election subsidy parties receive was a good idea but that it did not go far enough.  Indeed that is the title of his op-ed: “Too far? Sorry, the Tories did not go far enough.”  Inter alia he seems unhappy with all the electoral subsidies but he really wants the per vote-subsidy axed. As we shall see, this is quite curious given what he says he wants to achieve: a more stable competitive political system.

There are two ways to go here.  One is to argue that Coyne is a timid man and is not following the courage of his convictions all the way.  Coyne generally holds that the government is unnecessary save for the areas of the enforcement of contracts, the security of citizens, and the territorial integrity of the state.

The first of which he probably interprets fairly broadly so that things like intellectual property rights got inside the bailiwick of the state; the second he would probably interpret very narrowly so that things like insecurity of poverty did not get inside the bailiwick of the state; and the third would have to be interpreted in such a way that the military was used purely in a violence making capacity.  In sum, we can call this the Libertarian-Lockian view of the State (LLS).

Of course were Coyne to follow the courage of his convictions he would have had to make an argument about his substantive normative view of the state and from that derive his position on the role of elections in liberal democratic systems and how they should be funded. Further he would have had to argue for his minimalist view of the state and minimalist view of when public subsidies are called for in a consistent manner: No public subsidies for any democratic institution, including the electoral system, that does not directly relate to the legitimate functions of the LLS .

The other way to go is to help Mr. Coyne make a coherent argument.  Let us assume that Coyne holds to a profound (that is maybe he actually read and evaluated Locke) view of the LLS.  Locke argued (albeit on a restricted to male property owners’ basis) that citizens formed the state to take care of their collective needs (the three functions of the LLS outlined above) and that they did so in a manner in which the legislative had to be accountable to citizens.  Locke went so far as to argue that citizens would be justified in armed revolt if the legislative strayed too far from its mandate.

One of the things that competitive elections accomplish in contemporary liberal democratic theory is that they do away with the need for armed revolt.  Competitive elections are viewed very much as a public good insofar as they guard against the certain loss of liberty and life (security) that would inevitably arise if armed revolt was the central mechanism by which the government of the day was held accountable (think Iraq if you doubt this).  Unlike armed revolts, competitive elections more or less assure that the majority opinion of Election Day wins out.  Armed revolts, however, may or may not be successful. Given the incredible violence making capacity of the modern state armed revolts are more likely than not to fail.  Thus, not only are competitive elections a public good (like the Lockian armed revolt) they are more efficient than the mechanism of armed revolt: some would even say a more civilised way of proceeding.

Let me assume Coyne is aware of this,  and that he actually believes in the competitive electoral process as a public good on this basis.  Indeed, he would probably argue that he wants to really embrace it—although that is not at all clear from his column.  Strangely there he suggests that the end to publicly funded campaign financing would create greater stability apparently by crushing the Bloc and strengthening the liberals.  This is a non-sequitor; any populist forces unleashed by parties forced to rely singularly on individual donations would compel the BLOC as much as the LP to strengthen their donor base.  And the case can be made that in either case it need not push in a more moderate direction.  Any party with a hard-core group of supporters is better to target that hard-core for stable funding and tinker on the margin to increase nominal donations from more moderate segments of the electorate.  This is the Conservative formula par excellence.  Were the Bloc and the Liberal parties successfully able to ape the conservative model it is hard to see how this would lead to more stability either in terms of majority governments or a diminished nationalist sentiment and vote in Québec.

As an aside, Anglos always think that nationalism is a transient phenomenon in Québec: It is not.  It is in fact one of the most stable national institutions in Canadian history that goes back to before there was a Canada.  Making the conjecture that tinkering with campaign financing will solve this “Anglo-burden” is wishful thinking.

Back to the issue of competitive elections.  Let me assume that Coyne’s conjecture that abolishing public financing of elections would have his desired effect: a strengthened LP and a diminished BLOC.  Coyne has curious notion of competition.  How does decreasing the efficacy of one party and the strengthening of another promote competition?

Economists generally hold to a quantity theory of competition: the more the better.  Oligopolistic forms of competition are not generally held up to be the preferred form. Further, although most liberal economists are ambivalent about what to do about oligopolistic market structure few would encourage their development.  But notice that Coyne’s positive assessment of an oligopolistic political market structure—because it lends to increased stability—could equally be applied to an oligopolistic market structure and from there it is surely not far to get to central planning.

Usually economists attack central planning on the basis that whatever might be said for its efficacy on paper (indeed the calculation debate was won by the socialists) it really is not efficient because it is too cumbersome, too slow to react to new demands, and too easily overwhelmed by disparate demands and in public choice theory too easily captured by narrow sectional interests.  These same arguments are then brought to bear on the state.  In fact some version of it was originally brought to bear on the absolutist state and then brought bear on the economy and then refined and brought back to bear on the state.

The authoritarian liberal impulse has always been to demand less democracy not more; to prize stability over democratic responsiveness; to prize efficiency in decision making over deliberation and consensus.   Of course authoritarian impulses in liberal democratic thought always sit uneasily beside their libertarian instincts.  Coyne is a good example of this tortured existence.

Let me come directly to the obvious problem with Coyne’s war.  In his op-ed he does, however briefly, acknowledge that the per-vote subsidy– and one could argue all the other electoral subsidies–were brought in as part of broader election campaign funding reform.  What he does not mention is the arguments behind campaign financing reform.  The idea was to make parties less reliant on big donations from well funded big interest groups like corporations and apparently unions.  The idea was to make the financing of parties conform more to their capacity to get broader public support to fund their election campaigns.

But is this not what Coyne argued for?  In fact the direct per vote subsidy is the most effective subsidy mechanism of all those mechanisms he outlined in his op-ed.  The tax credit, for example, disproportionately gives more money to bigger donors allowing parties to focus on narrow sections of the well healed population for funding:  counter to Coyne’s stated goal of forcing parties to broaden their support.  Similarly, the direct subsidy to campaign offices is accessible to any party that meets a minimum threshold of voter support.  With the consequence being that any single issue party with a minimum appeal to the electorate will get campaign subsidies disproportional to their popular support.

In fact, the per-vote subsidy is the only mechanism which encourages parties to broaden their support because it is the only subsidy which has a one-to-one correspondence between voter support and electoral financing for political parties.  It also has the perverse effect of rewarding large stable parties and limiting new entrants.  But given Coyne’s fascination with stability and oligopolistic political competition this would actually be another argument in favour of the per vote subsidy. One man’s vice is another man’s virtue.

Indeed, it would appear that to be consistent Coyne should be calling for the abolition of all electoral subsidies except the per-vote subsidy.  And to be consistent he should also be calling for a cap of 100$ per individual donor with no tax credit.  That is, of course, if Coyne’s agenda is  really to strengthen the hand of the individual voter vis-à-vis political parties.


2 thoughts on “The conservatives and democracy: Part I election financing

  1. Great analysis. Another example of the neoliberals’ talk of the “free” market of commerce and ideas is in fact a chimera that they have erected to hide their love (and i don’t use the word lightly for their authoritarianism.

  2. Solid discussion, Travis.

    Given that in a first-past-the-post system the number of parties will tend toward two, is there a tweak to be made to the per-voter subsidy that would encourage quantity in competition?

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