The Impact of Unlimited Influence in a Republic: Why We Need Campaign Contribution Reforms
Consider the following hypothetical situation: A single individual has an unlimited amount of wealth. This individual lives in republic with a largely laissez faire economic system. Could this individual control the republic’s electoral systems without limit?
In ancient times there was a limit to what an individual could buy with their wealth. These limitations did not come from government regulations or even social conventions, there was not a soul who could stop the pharaoh Tutankhamun from buying or selling anything he intended, even the bodies of men and women. Instead, these limitations came from a pragmatic place, there were simply some things which were not yet commodities in these times. Chief among these things, was an individual’s perception of reality.
In ancient times, and even up through very modern times, it was difficult, or even impossible, to actively monitor the thoughts of a large population. It was only through significant cultural events and traditions that one could observe a collective thought within a society. If old Tut wanted to know what his people thought, he would have to ask them. A whole system would need to be put in place for the surveying of a significant number of individuals and simply asking them their opinions on given topics. This would all have to be done by word of mouth, since widespread literacy is a fairly recent phenomenon, and word of mouth is prone to error. Just like the child’s game “Telephone,” as word of mouth accounts passed up the bureaucracy, the message would get scrambled and misinterpreted. Even if Tut wanted to know the opinion of his public, unless it was something massive and obvious, he would be oblivious.
In the modern era, gathering overall public opinion within a margin of 25% is trivial. We predict our elections with a margin of error as small as a few percent. In the United States this means predicting the voting behaviours of over two hundred million individuals. This can be seen on a micro scale on social media platforms as well. It is common for social media websites to gather data from an individual’s posts to determine huge amounts of information about the individual and predict what products they may want to purchase. If this is done for a large population, you can identify significant amounts of information about individuals, if you have the clout to purchase this information from those who gather it. Of course, that would be quite possible for an individual with unlimited wealth.
If Tut could access social media to purchase the opinions of his subjects, he may have been able to find that a slave uprising was evident! Tut could pay more guards to watch the slaves, feed them less, or take other actions to demoralize the slaves, but he could only influence the slaves externally. He could physically coerce slaves to the extent that his human resources could allow. This though, cannot necessarily move the hearts and minds of the slaves. The slaves can maintain their slave culture, their aspirations and their beliefs about the fundamental truths of human nature.
In the modern era, this does not hold true. There may be limits to the amount one can warp an individual’s mind, but we have not yet encountered them. Now individuals are constantly exposed to advertising in all areas of their life. A phone game is played and an ad for a water filter appears. A drive is taken down a public road and a billboard advertising hats and caps is prominently displayed within the driver’s line of sight. The driver or phone game player may think these are easily enough ignored, but if they are widespread enough, one cannot ignore the ads entirely.
In modern psychology there is a phenomenon called “The Illusory Truth Effect,” which states an individual has a tendency to believe something is true after repeated exposure. This was discovered in 1977. The phenomenon was widely used by the Soviet Union even before there was substantial research in the field of Psychology to support it. Through forced, repeated exposure to an untruth, a population can be lead to believe something that they know is untrue is actually true. The Soviet Union famously could do this to individuals, as was displayed in the Show Trials, but the real breakthrough was their ability to do it to entire populations. Their ability to distribute propaganda to the population enabled them to drill mistruths into the public and rewrite history. We can see the Illusory Truth Effect taken to its most extreme limits in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Let’s return to our original individual, the one with unlimited influence. Could they not employ the Illusory Truth Effect to achieve their ends? If one could purchase every billboard, every advertisement, every media sponsorship, could they not control truth itself? In a Laissez Faire society, this is quite fine for the sake of selling products, but is it reasonable to allow this for political advertising?
If there were enough ads, even basic scientific claims could be doubted. Suddenly, if it were favorable for our individual, all politicians who support the fundamental claim will be perceived as being liars. Their credibility will be damaged and a truly favorable set of policies could be replaced with a set of policies which favor our individual. These policies may use blatant falsehoods as their fundamental basis, but when those falsehoods become the public truth, it does not matter that they aren’t based in reality.
Through this our individual could, over time, redefine the basic human condition. They could establish caste systems, buy and sell religions, and manipulate the rules of the marketplace to favor them.
Of course, we are all so smart. “This couldn’t happen to my society,” is what people will think. I’m immune to ads and my public is beyond these weaknesses. Is that really true though? Or is it simply a helpful perceived truth fed to a public repeatedly, until it seems true.