I've been traveling around California to talk about my new book on the state's civic dysfunction. At most stops, my co-author and I get asked about whether the government should level the playing field (there being no great example of an unlevel playing field than Meg Whitman's $100 million in personal spending on her own campaign) and provide a system of public finance.
My answer: be careful what you wish for.
Next door to California, Arizona has just such a system. And many politically involved Arizonans I spoke with on a recent visit described it as a disaster.
What's the problem? Public finance helps elect more extremists of right and left to office. In fact, the controversial immigration law in Arizona -- SB 1070 -- probably wouldn't have happpened without public finance.
Here's how it works. Before public finance, Arizona candidates had to appeal to established institutions -- unions on the left, businesses on the right. Such establishment interests tend to be hostile to radicals. So they give money to more mainstream candidates, making it difficult for fringe conservatives and liberals without resources to compete.
But the public finance system levels the playing field -- by giving the under-funded fringe candidates the money they need to compete. Many of these candidates don't even bother meeting with interest groups or dealing with the party--they know that if they raise the small amount of money needed to qualify for public financing, they can compete. And in many cases, they're winning. Public-financed legislators from the right were crucial to the victory of SB 1070.
Public finance advocates protest that the problem in Arizona is not the act of giving money to candidates but the design of the system. They say that candidates should be forced to raise much more money before qualifying for public financing -- as a way of weeding out crazies and radicals. Maybe. But given all the political troubles California already has, is public financing a risk worth taking?