The fundamental feature of the political process in any democratic society is that voters have only a weak self-interest to be informed on political questions that will come before candidates running for office, or on the details of the positions taken by these candidates. The simple explanation for this well known "rational ignorance" is that whether any voter supports or opposes particular candidates has a negligible influence over the outcomes of elections when hundreds of thousands, and even many millions, are voting.
Lobbying activities and campaign contributions try to fill this void by either directly trying to influence legislators, governors, and presidents, or by trying to persuade voters to support particular positions. They persuade by providing information and misinformation, and by changing attitudes and beliefs. They sometimes also try to influence elected officials by bribing them with gifts, money, and favors, and also by making campaign contributions that candidates can spend to try to help get elected.
The ignorance of voters implies that many different ways will be used to persuade them to vote in particular ways. Given the powerful and extensive role of government in society and the economy, one might expect that a large number of hours and many dollars would be spent influencing voters and officials. Yet as Posner indicates, what is remarkable is not how much is spent on lobbying and campaign contributions, but how little. Yes, the $3 billion spent in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections is a lot of money in an absolute sense, but it is peanuts compared to the Federal government's expenditures on different programs of over $2 trillion. It is also small relative to the thousands of regulations that directly and in many indirect ways affect business actions and personal decisions.
Posner tries to explain why lobbying and campaign spending is small relative to the important issues at stake. As he indicates, for many reasons the influence of additional spending on outcomes favorable to those doing the spending may be rather small. It remains somewhat puzzling, however, why this additional influence is so small.
Whatever the explanation, it is not clear to me why we should want to restrict spending and lobbying, aside from punishment for outright bribes, and for other forms of malfeasance by officials and contributors. Perhaps we do want to restrict how soon members of say Congress could work as lobbyists after they leave office. According to one study of a few years ago, over 40 per cent of a sample of members of Congress who left government to be active in the private sector eventually registered as lobbyists. Yet ex-legislators may be socially as well as privately helpful as lobbyists since they are familiar with the workings of the legislative process and have good personal contacts.
If as I (and Posner) believe) the essence of democracy is competition in the political process, that competitive process should include persuading and influencing activities. That is, competition in the market to influence political outcomes by persuading voters and legislators is the only effective way to produce checks and balances on points of view that reach voters and officials.
To be sure, the degree of competition is not perfect in lobbying or campaign contribution since some groups are able to collect much more money to spend than are other groups that have an equally vested interest in political decisions. But there are many other ways to influence votes and decisions. Newspapers also influence opinions, and a free press demands no controls over how much newspapers can spend trying to influence the opinions of readers on political issues. The Internet has thousands of bloggers and others who try to influence political opinion. They too are unregulated in order to provide competition in the expression of opinion. Many organizations, such as those with retird persons, encourage members to spend their time on influencing how official vote on particular issues. The use of time for political purposes is essentially also unregulated.
So why should legislation single out explicit lobbying and explicit campaign contributions, and neglect all the other ways of influencing political outcomes? Lobbying and contributing to campaigns are only one major source of persuasive and influence efforts in the vast competitive market that tries to influence political decisions.
Another way to make my point that there is excessive attention in the US to lobbying and campaign spending is to compare political outcomes here with those in Europe or Japan. All the data indicate that much more is spent on campaigning and lobbying in the US than in either of these other places. Yet it is not obvious that either Europe or Japan has better political outcomes, measured either by the quality of legislation, or by the response to public opinion. Indeed, I believe their outcomes are worse, or at least no better. That would suggest that the United States is excessively concerned about the relatively small level of resources that is spent on explicit lobbying and campaigning.