Whenever Utah citizens, activists or newspaper editorials suggest that government would be the better for it if there were limits on the flow of campaign funds from special interests to candidates for public office, sitting office holders respond with a mixture of hurt and outrage.
How dare we, say the powerful, impugn the character of our public officials by suggesting that mere filthy lucre can alter the behavior of duly elected office holders. And it is true that direct ties between a campaign donation here and a vote there can be hard to establish.
But two new academic studies provide scientific foundation for the widely held notion that money talks. These research papers, together with the fact that the whole of the Utah political establishment is buried in the scandals attendant to Attorney General John Swallow's questionable fund-raising tactics, should inspire the political class to be much more receptive to imposing limits on the amount of money that flows into our state's political system.
One study was recently published by Kristin Smith-Crowe, an associate professor at the University of Utah. She and her colleagues found that the mere suggestion of money, as in images that test subjects looked at before being asked to answer questions or take tests, affected the outcomes.
Smith-Crowe's subjects, mostly business majors, proved more likely to be willing to do ethically questionable things if they were shown a picture of cash rather than an image of a landscape. Those questionable things range from pilfering office supplies to hiring people who would bring secrets from their former employer to a competing firm.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by academics at Yale and UC-San Diego, asked people identified as either strong Republicans or strong Democrats to answer questions about political events. Republicans saw the facts in a way that made Republicans, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, look good, while Democrats spun the same history in a way that made Bill Clinton and Barack Obama out to be successful.
But, when test subjects were told that more correct answers enhanced their chances to win a simple prize, such as an Amazon gift card, partisan spin went out the window and answers were more likely to be straight-up factual.
Bottom line: Money even the hint of money makes people do things they otherwise would not do.
If the Utah Legislature goes as far as impeaching the attorney general for his fund-raising escapades, and yet fails to limit the amount of money flowing through the system, it will have done little to solve the problem.