Policy Analysis No. 448

Government Financing of Campaigns: Public Choice and Public Values

Executive Summary

Following the passage of McCain-Feingold in 2002, advocates of additional campaign finance regulation hope to persuade Congress and some states to pass legislation that requires government financing of campaigns. Such programs offer subsidies and protections against electoral competition to a select group of candidates and causes. They also force taxpayers to support candidates and causes they oppose.

Supporters of government financing say these programs prevent corruption, advance equality of influence, and enhance electoral competition. The redistribution imposed by government financing itself offers a case study in the use of public power for private interests. The constitutional idea of equality—one person, one vote—does not require “an equal and meaningful participation in the democratic process,” as advanced by advocates of government financing. Enforcing equality of influence would not take into account intensity of preferences among citizens and would tend toward majority tyranny. The record suggests that government financing programs do not enhance electoral competition.

The public shows little support for government financing schemes. They have, at best, a mixed record in polls and in recent initiative votes. The states that have public financing based on taxpayer check-off have experienced steady declines in funding over the past two decades.

Read the Full Policy Analysis

John Samples is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government.