Donation Discrimination Denotes Deliverance of Democracy

A recent paper by Joshua Kalla & David Broockman has attracted some attention (for example, in this Washington Post storyMonkey Cage post, and this excellent, reflective post on Mischiefs of Faction by Jennifer Victor).  In a nutshell, the paper reports the results of a well-designed field experiment that provides evidence that donations to a Member of Congress “open doors” in the sense that being a donor promotes access to more high ranking officials in the Member’s staff, including possibly the Member of Congress himself or herself.

I am not going to critique the study. Jennifer does that well in several ways.  Unrelatedly, I am also not going to doubt (or cast doubt upon) the results.  Rather, doing what I do, I am going to make a quick point about the question at hand.

We have a situation in which a (quasi-)monopolist (the Member) has a “good” to sell (access/face time).  Simply put, let’s suppose this good is valuable to some people and, similarly, that donations are valuable to the Member.  Then, it follows from a classic corner of social science known as price discrimination that the Member (in self-interested terms) should privilege those who are willing to pay for it.  That is, those who want access most will be willing to pay more than those want access less, and an efficient means to allocate the scarce/costly resource of access is to give to those who are most willing to pay.  Is this normatively disturbing?  Hell, yes.  Is it troubling even in everyman’s language?  Oh, for sure.  Is it inevitable?  Well, yes, that too.

Here’s another, more methods-meets-theory take on it.  Suppose that a Member imposed a policy where donations did not offer an advantage in obtaining access.   Now, think about your position as a constituent/citizen seeking access.

What would you do?

Let’s suppose that you like money. We’ve already supposed you seek access.  Now, finally, put those two together in the face of the hypothetical Member who does not reward donations with preferential access. … You should be very happy as you realize that you can have your cake and eat it, too, as you keep your money and waltz into the Member’s office, swilling sherry and talking Grand Strategy into the wee hours.

The summary of this hypothetical is this: if you believe that is plausible (1) that members don’t reward donations with preferential access and (2) that potential donors like money, then the predicted level of donations to any members is zero.[1]

We know that people give money to campaigns.  We also know or at least strongly believe that people expect something for their money.  Putting these together, I will simply say that the conjunction of these makes me feel better, not worse, about our democratic system.

Paraphrasing at least an apocryphal version of Churchill, democracy is better than every system we’ve ever tried, but it’s still only capable of delivering second-best…at best.  The Kalla & Broockman results, as clean as a whistle, further confirm my belief in this.



[1] This is a blog post, and I’ve been away for a while for many reasons, including that these take me a lot of time.  Accordingly, I’ll simply note that other motivations for giving (e.g., financing reelection campaigns in a purely instrumental fashion) can be accomplished by other routes in the Federal campaign finance system (party committees, other PACs, etc., and unless you are really focused on a given Member’s reelection (but why, except for access?), these routes have transaction costs/flexibility advantages over direct giving to a single Member’s campaign).