The Coordination Fallacy

28 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2015 Last revised: 29 Jun 2017

See all articles by Michael D. Gilbert

Michael D. Gilbert

University of Virginia School of Law

Brian Barnes

University of Virginia - School of Law, Alumnus or Degree Candidate Author

Date Written: May 11, 2015


This symposium piece tackles an important issue in campaign finance: the relationship between coordinated expenditures and corruption. Only one form of corruption, the quid pro quo, is constitutionally significant, and it has three logical elements: (1) an actor, such as an individual or corporation, conveys value to a politician, (2) the politician conveys value to the actor, and (3) a bargain links the two. Campaign finance regulations aim to deter quid pro quos by impeding the first or third element. Limits on contributions, for example, fight corruption by capping the value an actor can convey to a politician. What about limits on coordinated expenditures? By preventing coordination on large expenditures like television ads, the law turns very useful support into less useful support, reducing the value an actor can convey. But actors can surmount this with more money: $1 million spent on less useful ads can convey a lot of value, often more than smaller amounts spent on very useful ads or contributions. Limits on coordination may also inhibit bargaining, the third element of a quid pro quo, but again, sophisticated actors can surmount this: they can bargain without discussing the substance of any expenditures. So coordination regulations cannot deter much corruption, at least not when wealthy and sophisticated actors are involved, the very actors who cause the most concern. Consequently, coordination regulations may violate the Constitution. This is not because coordinated expenditures do not corrupt but because the regulations do not deter. Solving this problem requires more than a broader set of regulations. It requires confronting a fallacy at the heart of campaign finance: the belief that coordination relates in an operational way to corruption.

Keywords: campaign, finance, coordination, corruption, quid pro quo

Suggested Citation

Gilbert, Michael and Barnes, Brian, The Coordination Fallacy (May 11, 2015). Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 43, p. 399, 2016, Virginia Law and Economics Research Paper No. 7, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 17, Available at SSRN: or

Michael Gilbert (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

Brian Barnes

University of Virginia - School of Law, Alumnus or Degree Candidate Author ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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