WHO should pay for political parties? The candidates? Their parties? Their members? The taxpayer? Wealthy individuals? Corporations? Trades unions? Bank robbers?
Democracies struggle to find a funding method that neither burdens the state nor encourages corruption. In the UK, where there is very little state funding, Conservatives want to cap contributions from the trades unions, which finance Labour, while Labour, which these days gets zilch from the private sector, wants to cap corporate and individual donations. The Liberal Democrats would like the state to cough up, if this favoured small parties, but are scared to push for this at a time of austerity.
From 2004 to 2010 Irish political parties got €89m from the State. The public-funding bill trundling through the system should increase accountability and transparency in private and corporate donations. (It's a shame it will create new problems through the ill-thought-out social-engineering provisions about gender quotas.)
It's all very tame here, though, compared to the United States, where the funding jungle is predictably red in tooth and claw. Recent cautious reforms have been succeeded by a free-for-all, for in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that a 1947 ban on corporations using their profits to endorse or oppose candidates was unconstitutional. Political action committees (Pacs) can now raise and spend what they like and support whom they like as long as they stay technically independent of candidates or political parties.
In the race for the presidential nomination, Republican SuperPacs have thrown themselves joyfully into negative advertising, and the electorate have been exposed to witty, savage, sometimes falsely-based character assassination. As a result of recent electoral carnage, there were only four candidates for the Republican nomination left to run in the 10 elections on March 6, Super Tuesday. In the run-up, Endorse Liberty, the SuperPac supporting Ron Paul, spent only $21,512 on adverts, for Paul hasn't won a single state and SuperPacs are dominated by hard-headed rich people who want winners.
Romney won six states on Super Tuesday, Santorum three, Gingrich one and Paul none. Romney now has twice as many delegates as Santorum and almost four times as many as Gingrich. Ron Paul has only a handful.
Not surprisingly, Romney's aides urged his opponents to give up and unite behind him against the Democratic foe. As his political director put it, "As Governor Romney's opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person's odds of winning they are increasing are President Obama's."
They won't drop out yet, though. Paul is pushing policies rather than Paul, and with primaries coming up in the party's natural constituency of the South, where Romney is weak, Santorum and Gingrich still think they're in with a chance.
Ohio was the bell-wether state last week, and Santorum has drawn hope from having lost it to Romney by only a tiny margin.
Romney's war-chest and supporting SuperPac are still loaded, but, as Obama's gleeful campaign manager put it, "He's not winning in these states; he is limping across the finishing line."
Within his party, he's still suffering because no-one really knows what he stands for. The popular gag is: 'A Conservative, a Moderate, and a Liberal walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Hi Mitt."'
Accusations of flip-flopping stick, and his managerial style is so uninspiring that his wife jokes that she'll do the speech-making rather than him.
Gingrich's selling points are charm, brains and experience, but his flakiness continues to worry the grassroots.
It's Santorum who now bothers Romney. He has a knack of encapsulating in his rhetoric the essence of why Republicans distrust Obama -- his cry is 'freedom'.
He presents President Obama not just as financially reckless, but as creating -- through government mission-creep -- a culture of depen-dency that counters the American history of self-reliance.
Traditionally, Americans hate big government. For decades, government spending as a percentage of GDP has been around 20 per cent: under Obama the average is 24 per cent -- and that's before the huge costs of ObamaCare kick in.
There's a feeling that Obama wants to turn the US into a European social democracy, and outside the liberal elite, that is anathema to the American psyche.
Whichever Republican candidate Obama faces will already have survived everything his party opponents could dig up on him, so the ability of Obama's SuperPacs to do further damage will be limited.
Obama, on the other hand, will be vulnerable to negative advertising on a scale he has never experienced before.
The downside of SuperPacs is obvious: the upside is that come the presidential election, every last skeleton will have been rooted out of its cupboard. And it won't have cost the taxpayer a dime.