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The swiftness and efficiency of the recent papal election has some commentators lamenting the state of the American electoral system, particularly with regard to the increasing expense involved in selecting a president. The 2012 presidential election, for example, lasted nearly two years and ended up costing in excess of $5 billion.
What a waste! Think of the good that money could do if applied to more productive pursuits. Think of the diseases we could cure, the poverty we could alleviate and the hungry mouths we could feed. It is criminal that such an abundance of wealth should be squandered on something so trivial as an election. This is the position of those that decry election spending, but this attitude betrays a deep misunderstanding of how the economy, or indeed money in general, functions.
There are a number of reasons why the alarm generated by the steep price tag of elections is misplaced. To begin with, elections are important. The media circus dwelling on every tiny gaffe or past indiscretion by a candidate may make this fact easy to forget, but it is important to remember that we are choosing the leader of the most powerful country in the world. For the sake of comparison, note that the advertising budget for Coca-Cola was nearly $3 billion in 2010, and Microsoft spent $1.6 billion. Surely something as important as a presidential election merits as much spending as the marketing of sugary drinks and buggy software.
Second, bear in mind that all money spent on campaigns - every dime of it - was voluntarily given by supporters with an interest in the outcome. This money was not stolen out of the pockets of hardworking Americans or ripped from the pensions of the elderly. It was willingly donated by people who believe that their support of a candidate is more valuable than a few extra dollars in their pockets. If anything, we should be inspired by the extent to which the people are motivated to participate in the political process. Would it not be more worrisome if no one was donating to political candidates at all?
Finally, critics of election spending seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that money, once spent, is consumed as if by fire and rendered into a pile of useless ash. Of course, the truth is quite the opposite. Money spent on campaigns becomes income for staffers, television stations, manufacturers of yard signs and bumper stickers and so on. The people who earn this income then go on to spend it on other things: food, housing, health care, charity, luxuries and anything else they happen to want or need. Some of it will be saved in bank accounts, which can then be used to offer loans to businesses wishing to expand their operations or entrepreneurs needing seed money to get started.
Far from being used up, this money multiplies as it is spent, creating more income for the economy as a whole and making us all better off. What then can be the complaint against citizens volunteering their money to be spent in a way that creates value both at the individual and aggregate level?
As for the length of the election process, it has admittedly become tedious, but this can only be blamed on our own willingness to continue to express interest. News outlets respond to viewing figures and as long as people remain engaged in election politics, they will happily give coverage to it. If we want shorter elections, we must demand them through our viewing habits, not attempt to enact ill-advised and ineffective legislation to that effect.
As fascinating as the papal election was, a secret ballot conducted by a few appointed individuals hardly seems like a model we in the United States should wish to emulate. Instead, let us rejoice in our free, open and increasingly participatory democracy.