Monday, September 27, 2010

Zillionaires Running for Office

I struggle to understand why people are alarmed by zillionaires funding their own political campaigns. We're supposed to hate - merely on the face of it - the notion that rich dudes might buy themselves a public office. It seems undemocratic.

But wait. First of all, no one can actually buy an elected office. A huge war chest is, indeed, a huge advantage, but, still, we vote. And consider that Michael Bloomberg, a very well-liked mayor, only barely squeaked through the last election despite out-spending his opponent by a hundred million dollars.

And even his harshest critics would never accuse Bloomberg of crony capitalism. He hasn't shown partiality to business colleagues, or steered city contracts in self-serving directions, etc. If he had, he'd have sunk like a stone, because everyone's been watching for that. Even a trillion dollar campaign fund couldn't protect a mogul-turned-politician who uses his position to siphon public money to cronies (exception: Dick Cheney re: Halliburton). Bigwigs don't go into politics to enrich themselves and their friends because their political careers would be cut very short and their images forever tarnished. And, anyway, much more money could made by remaining in the business world. No mogul goes into politics to expand wealth.

So why do it? Ego plus a genuine pull toward public service. The ego part's a given for anyone in politics. But a heartfelt public service urge is a good thing, no? Even better is the freedom to defy special interests (since their money's not accepted). Finally, a leader who isn't relentlessly fundraising can apply more time and energy to actually leading.

Of course, well-intentioned politicians can be just as incompetent as corrupt ones. But while private sector success is no guarantee of governing skill, it requires intelligence, savvy and determination, so serious incompetence is less likely.

We get more competence, better motives, less special interest pressure, and greater attention to governing (indeed, Bloomberg has done a great, high-minded job; he's been New York's best mayor in decades). And none of us is thrilled with conventionally-funded politicians. So why, exactly, are we supposed to be so upset about self-financed ones?

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