How can the influence of wealthy individuals on democratic processes be reduced?

  • This question is inspired by the discussion about lobbyism and free speech.

    There are two fundamental ideas in modern democracies that seem to contradict each other, while both being so fundamental that none could be severely restricted without burying the concept of a capitalistic democracy.

    The first one is "one man, one vote". Each citizen in a democracy should have the same influence on electing the government. Giving some people more than one vote (for example, on the base of taxes paid or educational level) is considered undemocratic.

    The second one is the freedom to accumulate wealth. While of course progressive tax rates exist, there is no upper limit as to how much money a single person may possess. It is considered a basic freedom to make as much money as one is able too (while, of course, adhering to the law).

    In principle, I am okay with both. But now there is a severe conflict between the two, given by lobbyism and the influence of money on the outcome of elections. (Note that while inspired by current events, this is not a Donald Trump thing, the phenomenon can be seen far beyond this case and the political stance of the respective candidates is irrelevant to the question.)

    If I have so much money that I can put pressure on the candidates running for election - by funding TV ads or political campaigns or by threatening not to do so - I exercise a power far beyond my own voting power. I am also not just representing a number of voters with the same goals. So, effectively my vote is worth much more than the vote of others, because giving my vote (and money) to another candidate is a much more powerful threat than some ordinary guy giving the vote to someone else.

    So through the backdoor, I have introduced a sort of census suffrage. Now what are the options?

    1. Accepting the situation as is. But in this case, I have a system where the rich effectively have much more voting power than the rest. Assuming (as a rough estimation) that wealth is proportional to voting power, this can lead to a situation where 1% of the population have 40% of the voting power. And this seems more like an aristocracy than a democracy.

    2. Severely restricting the accumulation of wealth. The communist solution, and not very effective in the past. Moreover, this has not prevented (and maybe even supported) the emergence of small powerful undemocratic groups.

    3. Putting restrictions to the usage of wealth in political situations. This solution is used in many western states, but is of course a violation of free speech and the possibility to exercise political influence at will.

    Are there any more options? None of them seem very appealing and none of them will support a truly free and democratic system. How can personal freedom to acquire wealth and having the same voting power for everyone coexist without one undermining the other?

    Edit for clarification: Voting power is not only about what I actually vote at the ballot box. When I go to my congressman and demand a certain behavior or else I will not vote for him the next time, I am also exerting voting power. The question mainly is about the strong correlation between wealth and this type of voting power.

    This question looks almost like a duplicate of "Why is paid lobbying considered a form of 'free speech'?". Does that answer your question? If not, could you try to differentiate this question more from the other?

    @Philipp It is inspired by the question you cited, but I don't want to know why lobbying is considered free speech, or if it should be considered free speech. The main point is the question if the underlying perceived problem - money buys laws and votes - can be avoided, and how.

    Control of the media is MUCH more powerful than spending millions of dollars on commercials and advocacy organizations. The media shapes public opinion 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and even worse, in the US, the media works hard pretending to be neutral and unbiased when they so clearly are not.

    It's an *interesting* question, but seems more like a discussion topic than something with a clear answer.

  • Many countries adopt some variant of solution (3):

    Putting restrictions to the usage of wealth in political situations. This solution is used in many western states, but is of course a violation of free speech and the possibility to exercise political influence at will.

    The assumption "of course this is a violation of free speech" is not universally shared.


    US courts have recently taken a broad interpretation of the First Amendment, which holds that spending money is a form of "speech" and therefore has strong constitutional protection. As a result, there is little or no restriction on spending in US elections.

    Important caveats:

    • Victory does not always go to the best funded campaign: In 2016 Clinton outspent Trump by approximately $500 million.

    • It is possible that in the future, the US Supreme Court will take a less absolutist stance on political funding, opening the door to renewed attempts at campaign finance reform.

    United Kingdom

    The UK is a capitalist society with freedom of expression. A wealthy person is free to own one or more newspapers and use them to promote his or her views, and several billionaires do exactly that.

    On the other hand:


    Other countries take their own approaches. For example Germany has no limits on campaign spending, but also has strict rules on transparency, and generous public funding of political parties in order to level the playing field.


    No right is absolute. A wealthy person has the right to spend money; but other citizens, individually or collectively, may decide certain things are not for sale.

    It could also be the assumption that "Free speech is absolutely inviolable" that isn't universal, or some combination of those two. Europe is much more amenable to restricting *kinds* of speech, but even the US bans the proverbial "shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre"

    The statement that “Clinton outspent Trump” does not tell the whole story in terms of campaign financing, as Trump received between two billion and five billion dollars in free coverage, while Clinton did not.

    @VGR It does tell the whole story. Your comment is extremely misleading, the "free coverage" has nothing to do with campaign funding, this is not something that you can buy, just the estimate of how much the coverage by the media is worth.

    @Oleg Especially since the Clinton campaign was _encouraging_ that coverage (as detailed in their leaked e-mails)...

    "The assumption "of course this is a violation of free speech" is not universally shared." That's not an assumption, that's a fact. "US courts have recently" CU is hardly the first decision. a broad interpretation" Saying that the 1A prohibits restrictions on speech is hardly "broad". "holds that spending money is a form of "speech" " No, speech is speech. It remains speech even if

    @VGR "Trump received between two billion and five billion dollars in free coverage, while Clinton did not." And therein lies the problem: are we going to tell media outlets "You've spent more money covering Trump than Clinton, so now you're not allowed to cover Trump any more"? Because that's where the campaign finance "reform" logic leads.

    @Accumulation: The USA is not the entire universe. And rulings of the US Supreme Court are not the same as facts.

    Also in Germany, the publicly funded TV networks and radio stations give each party the same amount of time for election advertising - for free. The parties still have to produce their video but the time and place of broadcast is equal for every party. The private TV networks and radio stations are also regulated to ensure an equal playing field for election advertising.

    +1 for noting that money doesn't impact the results as much as might be expected. This is something that was described in "Freakonomics" and is supported by research, see for example:

    @Caleth Under US law, "Fighting words" aren't a protected form of speech. So if you say to someone "I'm gonna smash your head in" then you can still be arrested for it. Freedom of Speech is not entirely universal, even in the US.

    “Clinton outspent Trump” also does NOT include amount spent by Putin to help Trump and damage Clinton. And yes, Trump is master in creating a distractions for media to follow and soak free coverage, and media were not prepared to handle those distractions and not be used and played like a flute by Trump.

    @SGR - Just to be precise, "I'm gonna smash your head in" is not "fighting words" - it's a threat. "I'm gonna smash your head in, you n****r", or "I'm gonna smash your head in, m**********r", are fighting words.

    @gnudiff You say the better-funded candidate doesn't win as often as expected. Other sources say that the better-funded candidate wins about 91% of the time.

    @John (1) It is not I who say it, I just quote people who have studied it and say it. (2) in the (Freaconomics) book, if I remember correctly, the data were analyzed for *presidential* candidates over as far back as there *is* data on spending. Therefore: (1) it could be different for presidential elections vs congressional, (2) the source you mentioned only shows status of a single year of congressional race. It seems to be that for the research to be meaningful, it should include as much races as there is data, to allow for as little misplaced causation as possible.

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