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Democracy’s Money Problem | The Nation

The title of Julia Cagé’s The Price of Democracy will prompt Americans to think of the obscene cost of their elections. The amount spent on the 2020 federal races is said to have been a staggering $14 billion (more than twice the price tag for 2016). State elections consumed close to $2 billion. Almost 90 percent of the House candidates who spent the most money ended up winning.

Cagé, a French economist affiliated with the elite university Sciences Po in Paris, has plenty of critical things to say about campaign finance in the United States, but her main point goes further. Democracy, she writes, is never free—not in the United States, and not in the rest of the world. But we have yet to figure out who should pay for what in a system founded on the notion of political equality.

In The Price of Democracy, Cagé offers us a deeply researched account of how states regulate campaign finance. Comparing countries as varied as India and Belgium, she finds that even the seemingly more egalitarian democracies have failed to do so successfully. In response, she proposes an attractive alternative that puts the financial responsibility for democracy squarely in the hands of citizens: a publicly funded voucher scheme that allows individuals to support their preferred candidates and parties, combined with severe restrictions on all private donations.

Democracy, of course, has never been free. The ancient Athenians constructed complicated sortition machines through which officeholders were chosen by lot; they also built an amphitheater for an assembly in which thousands of citizens could participate. They even thought that ordinary people who took part in politics should be paid, much to the outrage of the anti-democratic philosophers, who deemed democracy the most expensive political system around—even if the annual expenditure for the assembly was roughly the same as the amount needed to feed the horses of the 1,000-strong Athenian cavalry.

Today, the costs of democracy range from those of the actual machinery of voting to the transportation of mail-in ballots to the maintenance of party organizations and political campaigns. In most democracies, taxes ultimately pay these costs, which was also the case in ancient Athens. In the contemporary US, by contrast, election laws and a number of fateful Supreme Court decisions since the 1970s allow corporations to play a large part in financing politics and the ultra-wealthy to dominate campaigns through “dark money.” But the glaring inequality of the US system is hardly unique. As Cagé reminds her readers, “radiant Dorian Europe” (the reference is to the Oscar Wilde character) should not feel reassured by “the very existence of Gray America.” For, in Western Europe, donations are also highly concentrated among the wealthiest: In France and the UK, 10 percent of “megadonors” account for more than two-thirds of the total given. And in countries where corporate donations are allowed, companies play an obviously unsavory role. In Germany, for instance, the auto industry and the cigarette maker Philip Morris spend lavishly on the largest center-left and center-right parties; the tobacco giant also sponsors party conventions and “summer parties” in Berlin, expenditures that largely go unnoticed.

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