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Lawyers, Guns, and Money
Yale Lawís John Lott on the impossibility of campaign finance reform ē April 2000

Free Press: Recent studies of yours have been critical of the ideas that 1) prevalent gun ownership increases crime, 2) campaign contributions unduly influence congressmen, and 3) predatory pricing hurts consumers, among others. All these studies have wielded social science tools against conventional wisdom. Why do you do that type of work?

John Lott: I usually try to do things that have some interesting logical twists people havenít thought of previously. Itís a little different in the gun debate. Arguments there are pretty straightforward. People know them on both sides. The only reason I ended up getting into the gun debate was that I was teaching a class about six years ago and some students were interested in gun control issues. That forced me, even though I was familiar with the literature, to take a look through it more systematically, and I realized how incredibly poorly done the research was. There were very small samples. By far the largest looked at 170 cities within one year, 1980. The next largest was just 24 cities. None of them looked at arrest rates or convictions rates. When youíre an academic, one of the reasons you do research is that you think you can do a better job than people have done previously. The largest research had 170 observations; my research, in my book [More Guns, Less Crime], had about 58,000 observations. I was able to control for thousands of factors others werenít able to control for. To be honest, I didnít find the research very interesting because it was so straightforward. Campaign finance is more interesting in the sense that here was an important problem that academics havenít been able to solve. The problem was that people would look at correlations between donations and how someone voted. Theyíd find a positive relationship. But what that told you wasnít clear, because it could be that you were giving money to alter the way someone votesówhich is the way a lot of people interpret itóor that youíre giving money to some politician who values the same things as you, and you want to see them in office. Both of those explanations are perfectly consistent with the evidence thus far. We had a very simple test that allowed us to differentiate between those two explanations. The study looked at politicians in their last term, when they no longer face the threatened loss of campaign contributions, and asked, how does their voting behavior differ from other times when they were supposedly being bought off? If money were causing them to vote differently than they otherwise would have voted, then in their last term, when they no longer faced the threatened loss of that money, did they then alter to any degree how they voted on issues? What we found is that politicians remain extremely consistent, not only in their last term relative to earlier terms, but over their entire political career. You just donít see them changing. The most conservative when they first get in tend to be the most conservative when they leave.

YFP: Did your recent study on campaign finance reform assume that politicians are rational actors?

Lott: It assumes that they have some preference. If itís more costly for them to do something, theyíll do less of it. The bribing story surely has some type of rational actor notion there, that youíre giving them an incentive and theyíre responding to it in some way. Youíre paying them money, and the more you pay them, supposedly, the more you can bribe them. Thatís the hypothesis. The alternative is also consistent with the rational actor type story. Itís the notion that I care about what other people really believe, and the reason I care about them is that I have to trust them. If somebody, for example, in terms of friendship, intrinsically values me in their utility function, I believe they are less likely to hold me up, or do bad things to me, try to cheat me. Even if theyíre going to leave the area, even if the friendship is going to end at some point, if I really think that somebody cares about me, then I have some confidence that theyíre less likely to cheat me. Itís the same notion here in politics. If I try to put into office someone who intrinsically values the same things I do, and Iím successful in getting them into office, then I can be confident that that person will continue voting that way even when he no longer faces reelection.

YFP: What (if anything) positive can you draw from your study on how politicians decide to vote?

Lott: They vote to represent their constituents. I think they do a good job at that. Politicians who deviate by even a small fraction of a percentage point from how they voted in the past are very likely to be quickly removed from office. In some cases my theory is going to result in the exact same outcome in terms of how a congressman might vote as the alternative theory. If I put into office a person who values the same things as I do, youíre going to see the same votes as if I were to buy a congressman to vote the way that I want.

YFP: Was there anything besides empirical studies which suggested to you that this would be the result?

Lott: We see this type of phenomenon in many ways. We care what people intrinsically value, and we try to use that to help make sure we have the right people on the job. Take tenure. Giving someone tenure removes some of their incentive to keep on doing research. So ideally you want to give tenure to people who intrinsically value research. You give it to that person who will keep on doing it even if they donít have any incentives to do it, in terms of payoffs. So in the faculty dining room, if someone comes in and starts talking about the basketball game the night before, thatís probably not a really good sign about what that person values. If they really value these other things a lot, and you go and give them tenure, if they donít have the threat of not getting tenure hanging over their heads, theyíre more likely to go and consume the other things in life. You want somebody who consumes doing research.

YFP: Does your study rehabilitate congressmen in any way?

Lott: Iím sure there are some people who are going to view it that way. Iím also sure that there are some people who view my work as being pro-government in the sense that it shows politicians do a good job representing their constituentsóyou donít have a political market failure. But there are two issues here. One is whether politicians do a good job representing their constituents, and secondly, whether than means youíre getting the type of government you really want in terms of maximizing wealth. Just because politicians do a good job representing their constituents doesnít mean that youíre going to have the most ideal policies in terms of maximizing societyís wealth or what have you.

YFP: Given that the statistics donít bear it out, why do you think anyone believes that money can buy votes?

Lott: Take something a little bit different for a second: term limits. Iím sure that there are people out there who really believe that term limits are going to make society a better place, and maybe they will, but itís hard to disentangle some peopleís views on whether term limits are intrinsically good or bad from their political interests. For example, if you look at states that have adopted term limits for state legislators and other officials, in California, Republicans tend to be more likely to vote for term limits than Democrats. And in Wyoming, the Democrats tend to be more likely to vote for term limits than Republicans. One explanation is that Democrats control the state legislature and other bodies of power, so one could argue that, at the margin, it would benefit Republicans to support something that would turn out Democratic incumbents, because then it will be relatively easier for them to elect some of their guys. In Wyoming, which is overwhelmingly Republican, the reverse is true. Democratic voters thought that if we can do something to turn our a lot of these Republicans, it might be possible for us to take over the state legislature or elect a Democratic governor or something like that.

YFP: Would you go so far as to say that politicians who advocate campaign finance restrictions based on the argument that money buys votes are being intentionally manipulative?

Lott: I think so. I have no doubt that some of them are. The types of rules that are being pushed by different groups benefit those groups. They are going to entrench incumbents and make it harder for challengers, so Iíd be shocked if one didnít find that the types of rules that they were pushing were benefiting their own interests.

YFP: If you had five minutes in which to talk to John McCain about campaign finance regulation, what would you say?

Lott: Iíd say that the types of rules that he wants to put forward are going to entrench incumbents, make it more likely that wealthy candidates are going to run for and win office, are going to increase independent campaign expenditures, make nastier campaigns, and, in short, produce more of all the things he says he abhors. I understand the good intentions that I think he might have, but when you look at what weíve observed federally since 1974 and the experience in states where they have adopted different types of spending limits, you see pretty consistently the incumbent reelection rate going up and all these other things changing in the same direction. Why people think that even more of these types of rules would somehow now produce a different effect than we have been observing up to this point is not obvious to me.

YFP: Have your politics changed as a result of your work?

Lott: On issues like guns my views have changed pretty dramatically. Before I started doing that research I never owned a gun. No one in my family had owned a gun. My wife was very strongly against guns. She wouldnít even let her kids play with toy guns in the home. But now we own a gun because I believe very strongly that having a gun in the home is the wisest course for people to take. Itís much more likely to save a life than to cost a life by any measure.

YFP: If your results had been different, if it turned out that politicians are often bought, would you then advocate strict campaign finance regulations?

Lott: I might be more willing to do it, but I think there are lots of problems that you would still haveóthe issue of price controls. Economists have studied price controls for a long time and there seem to be certain universal lessons from price controls. One is they treat the symptoms rather than the cause. If I go and put price controls on gasoline like they did in the 70s, people may pay less at the pump, but they compete in other ways. What happened is people would get to gasoline stations hours before they open so they could start queuing in line so they could get the little amount of gasoline that would be sold. One of the things we know is that people are going to compete in other ways in order to get people that they like elected to office. I simply canít see how youíre going to stop all these forms of competition. Iíll give you an extreme example. Letís say they outlaw soft money donations and prevent any private donations to the candidates and have it all publicly financed. What would happen is, if I wanted to influence an election, and Iím Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner, I go and buy a media outlet. If they go and have a favorable news story on a candidate, how are you going to count that as a donation? As long as the First Amendment means anything, it would be impossible for you to count that as a donation. Under this scenario, if you or I were to go and give money to a candidate to pay for an ad, that would be forbidden. But itís not obvious to me how one can differentiate the huge number of different ways you can contribute to and support a candidate. What theyíll try to do is to include independent expenditures. There have been some versions of the McCain-Feingold bill that would count independent expenditures towards a candidateís own expenditure limits. But there are huge problems with that. Letís say you have a Democrat running for office and I donít like him. What Iíll do is Iíll set up the KKK office in that area, and have them take out ads saying the KKK endorses this candidate, the Democrat, for office. Now the Democrat has to go spend money defending himself against this endorsement. So he gets a double whammy. He counts the money spent by the group he doesnít want an endorsement from, and that counts against his total, plus he has to spend money counteracting it. So you have all sorts of bizarre things that can go one, and I think that these campaign finance laws will reduce the information that voters get, and the system will work less efficiently than it would have otherwise. Iím not as concerned as a lot of people are about the total amount thatís being spent on campaigns simply because I donít think itís very much. When the I-Mac got introduced a few years ago by Apple, they spent something like $120 million promoting it. Thatís about what weíre going to be spending now on the presidential candidates of both the Democrats and the Republicans in the general election this year. So that doesnít sound like a lot to me. When you ask, how does the decision of who is going to be president compare to the importance of the I-MacóApple giving information about this new computer that they haveóto me it sounds like a trivial amount. People are complaining about the fact that $3 billion will be spent on elections this year, which I guess sounds like a lot. But when Ford Motor introduced the Taurus they spent something like $800 million promoting it. Another way to think about the 3 billion number is to compare it to federal government expenditures of almost $2 trillion, and thatís just federal expenditures. That doesnít include state and local expenditures, and the impact of regulations and everything else.

YFP: What campaign finance regulations, if any, would you support?

Lott: I think the best thing to do is to get people to report and know who is giving what money to whom. But I would guess that politicians have some incentive to do that anyway. If thatís what the voters want to be informed about, theyíll let them know.

YFP: So you would support no campaign finance regulations whatsoever?

Lott: Yes. I can understand the desire for a lot of these regulations. But I think that most will unfortunately create the opposite effect of what people want.

óInterview conducted by Daniel Mindus, Publisher

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