Monthly Archives: September 2014

Searching for Motives in Law and in Economics

Corruption in America:
From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United
Zephyr Teachout
Harvard U.P.
376 pp.; $29.95

… campaigns cost money, and — absent an effective system of public funding for elections — there can be no democracy without campaign contributions. Citizens give to candidates whose policies they support, whether their reasons for donating are principled or not. Deciding whether a contribution is corrupt is difficult without knowing the motives of the donor…

Kennedy tried to escape the dilemma by resorting to the worldview of contemporary economics and social science, which studiously ignores people’s motives and seeks only to describe their behavior. Legal scholarship and judicial opinions have incorporated more and more economic concepts over the past few decades, an important trend for understanding Citizens United to which Teachout doesn’t devote enough space.

Economists never ask whether people have good reasons for spending their money on, say, pet accessories. Likewise, the court does not ask whether people have good reasons for making campaign donations. Patriotism, ambition, faith, avarice — all are equally valid reasons for contributing, according to Citizens United.

The quid pro quo standard, which leaves motives out of the discussion, appears to lend the abstract rigor of economics to corruption law. It does not…

Read the rest at The Washington Post.