L. Neil Smith's
Number 246, November 9, 2003

Wrong Way, Right Way

The Campaign Finance Absurdity
by Anthony Gregory

Exclusive to TLE

The most ironic thing about the campaign finance reform advocates is that they presuppose the very same fact about government that their opponents do—namely, that government is corrupt.

If it weren't for the willingness of legislators in both major political parties to fight each other over the privilege of handing out the juiciest favors to special interests, the campaign finance reform controversy wouldn't even exist. Indeed, many of the staunchest supporters of campaign finance reform have only recently observed what most libertarians have always seen. The United States government uses its incredibly indescribable amount of power and money to dole out cushy contracts, slanted tax breaks, and outright subsidies to those private interests with the closest political connections.

Where libertarians and the others differ—as usual—is that we believe the answer is less government, not more. If government didn't have all that power and money, the problem would evaporate. People who want a big and powerful government, however, blame the private interests that lobby and receive special favors. These people think the best course of action is to somehow limit the ability of private interests to gain political influence, specifically through campaign donations. Never mind that it takes two to tango—that for every bribe there is a willing bribe-taker. Never mind that as long as the government has its grubby paws all over business, business will inevitably find ways to manipulate government. Never mind that, no matter how you look at it, campaign finance reform boils down to allowing corrupt lawmakers to make laws to do away with their own corruption. Somehow, the campaign finance reformers tell us, more restrictions on the millions of campaign dollars will translate into more proper use of the trillions of tax dollars.

So let's assume for a moment that their analysis is right. Let's pretend that it's not government corruption that invites private corruption, but the opposite. Let's agree with them, for the moment, that money is tainting politics, and not vice versa.

Campaign finance reformers still have another problem. Political parties, like all the big businesses that currently lobby for cushy contracts, are also private interests. Perhaps they shouldn't be, but they are, just as much as the gargantuan corporations that fund elections are. If large companies can get their bidding done by making campaign contributions, so can political parties by endorsing successful politicians. The more laws that regulate campaigns and elections, the easier it will be for larger political parties to keep out smaller ones. As it is, the Libertarian and Green and other third parties have to put up with ballot access requirements that the Republicans and Democrats, under state laws, are allowed to circumvent by virtue of their being Republicans and Democrats.

The most extreme of campaign finance reform ideas is for the government to completely fund political campaigns and ban private donations altogether. Once this happens, nothing will stop corrupt lawmakers from using the new campaign funding regime to protect the politically correct parties, as the fringe parties fade into obscurity under a barrage of licensing laws and federal filing forms.

Some campaign finance reformers might disagree, arguing that although political parties may have the motivation to access and use legislators to their advantage, they won't have the means—as soon as campaign restrictions are in place. This is simple foolishness. Why do politicians give handouts to certain corporations? According to the campaign reformers, because those companies helped the politicians acquire their power, particularly through campaign contributions. Politicians would have similar incentive to help certain political parties, because the political parties help the politicians acquire power, even more directly than do big businesses. Under the current system, friendliness to big businesses means access to private campaign dollars. Under "public" financing of elections --or the "government-electoral complex"—friendliness to political parties means access to "public" campaign dollars. Politicians are back-scratchers and will always find partners with whom to exchange favors.

Another possible scenario has some of the third parties surviving, but becoming corrupted themselves. Once a third party becomes an official, state-subsidized party, it will attract candidates and voters for non-ideological reasons. If, for example, the Green Party received the same funding from the government as the GOP, it would be hard to keep out celebrity candidates—and enough supporters to overwhelm the nominating conventions—attracted to the campaign war chest, rather than to the party's policy stances. So far, third parties have been relatively principled, but putting them on the dole would end that.

Idealist reformers may insist that anyone who wants to run for office will receive equal campaign coverage, funded by the government, but this is of course absurd. Even the major third parties do not have access to the presidential debates as it is. As the California recall illustrated, the easier it is to be a candidate, the more candidates there will be. The more than hundred candidates could not have possibly received equal campaign resources.

Some campaign finance reformers say the answer is to eliminate political parties. Wow. Presumably, once we ban campaign contributions, and then we get rid of political parties, only then will the legislators start working for the people, and not for those nasty special interests. The problem with this approach is that it is not much different from having a single party state, where the government itself now completely controls who can run for office, how they are funded, and with which organizations they may associate freely. The only difference between a single party state and one in which the government bans parties altogether is what we call the coalition of government actors and politically connected cronies that manages to keep itself in power. Indeed, that's the only difference between a single party system and what we have now—except that the power is somewhat divided among two coalitions ostensibly in competition. Campaign restrictions have helped make it that way.

Campaign restrictions make it so a concerned citizen can't give $1,001 to a third party candidate he likes. Meanwhile, the slimy incumbent can go on television whenever he wants, to boast about his new spending program or military adventure. The incumbent gets a political convention and campaign literature paid for by tax dollars. The Republicans and Democrats get all the campaign welfare and debate coverage they could possibly ask for. They control the campaign laws after all. Is it any wonder that the incumbent usually wins? Or that, when he doesn't, the winner is from the other Republicratic Party?

But today's detrimental restrictions aren't enough, the campaign reformer tells us. We need the newest one, perhaps sponsored by those two paragons of incorruptibility, John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Maybe the answer is to forbid private organizations from even voicing an opinion about a candidate before an election. It's impossible to see how this is not a naked violation of free speech. But that's the type of "solution" to corruption the campaign finance reformers offer.

What's the real solution to businesses and other private interests manipulating the government and imposing their will on all of us? Let's think about church and state for a second. For thousands of years, the two were inextricable from each other, corrupting and manipulating each other. After the two were more or less separated from each other—and in proportion to how much they've been separated—religion has become remarkably more benign toward nonbelievers. Government, on the other hand, has remained corrupt, and certainly imposes its will on its nonbelievers. If the government began excessively regulating religion, church leaders would scramble to ensure theirs was the politically approved one, and religious freedom would be a relic of the past, as an official faith would again be imposed on all of us.

If we were to separate business and government from each other, taking the government out of the economy, businesses like Halliburton and Enron would lose their power over us. They might still do things we do not like, but at least we would not have to submit to them and support them, as we would with a state-sanctioned religion. Or a state-sanctioned business, like the ones that provide the utilities.

The government, being the agency of coercion that it is, will remain corrupt forever, in proportion to its size and power. Also corrupt will be any organization that tangos for long enough with government—whether big businesses, churches, or political parties.

That's because coercion is corruption. The absurdity of campaign finance reform is that it seeks out a way to fix the corruption of coercion with more coercive laws carried out by the corrupted.

Anthony Gregory is a freelance writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is sometimes a guest writer at Rational Review. Check out his website—www.AnthonyGregory.com—for more articles.


Search Amazon.com for ANY Book

Association with Amazon.com

Help Support TLE by patronizing our advertisers and affiliates. We cheerfully accept donations!

to advance to the next article
to return to the previous article
Table of Contents
to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 246, November 9, 2003