Money to buy nothing

By Michael R. Allen
web posted February 7, 2000

Strange things often happen at the local post office. Usually the strange things involve the problems of having a monopoly deliver the mail: smashed packages, lost letters, and so on. Occasionally, though, the post office fills in for the village square as a place where protesters and petitioners aggravate the customers who pass through the doors of the only place to mail a #10 envelope for a few cents.

Heaven knows why that was the kind of day I picked to go to the post office. As I walked into the building, I noticed that the woman standing on the sidewalk was trying to get someone to sign her petition. Well, if this was the petition that called for the governor of Missouri to demand that the Pentagon release all of its UFO documents to the public, I was would have slapped my John Hancock on it faster than you can say laissez faire.

Unfortunately, the petition was about something more bizarre than aliens: campaign finance reform.

"They have more money than we do," said the petitioner to the dazed postal patron next to me. I kept walking but, on the way out, was accosted.

When asked if I would sign my name on her sheet "to keep big corporations from spending millions on campaigns," I looked at her blankly. She smirked, and asked, "what, are you for it?"

"Yes, I'm for it," I said and continued to walk away.

Afterward, I considered my response in greater detail. Was I really for big business spending money without limit on campaigns? Well, the corporations can do bad with their money. And legislators are clearly influenced by their donors. Most of government depends on the interests of large political donors: agriculture subsidies for big agribusiness, defense pork for defense contractors and competitors being charged with law violations while other companies skirt the regulators. But do I oppose donating large sums of money to sleazy candidates? Hell no.

This is not because I like the idea of having my home torn down because Wal-Mart gave a couple thousand dollars to the mayor to influence the eminent domain proceedings. Special interests using the powers of government for bad are clearly immoral. Yet, the problem does not lie in the donors as much as the politicians. It is the mayors, senators and district attorneys who allow their offices to be corrupted. To stop the government from being manipulated, the power of the politician -- not the donors -- must be eliminated.

Reformers, like my friend the petitioner, are right to be frustrated. That the average citizen feels helpless as corporations get what they want at taxpayers' expense is a sad indictment of the current political system. It is because this situation indicts the political system itself that the reformers ought to be trying to cut down the power of government instead of the power of the powerful corporations.

All liberal versions of campaign finance reform expand the power of government, thus further increasing the chance that special interests will manipulate the way elections are conducted. To enforce strict limits on campaign finance, complicated laws will be drafted. To enforce these laws, a vast cluster of new bureaucrats will have to interpret the overwritten laws -- arbitrarily, of course. This system leaves open the chance that the bureaucrats will be "bought" by wealthy donors hoping to have their illegal donations to candidates overlooked.

By not believing that government power is the problem, reformers have only made things worse. The 1971 federal campaign finance reform laws only invited more corruption. That is because donors are attracted to power like vultures to a dead horse. Their intentions may be slimy, but reformers overlook the dead horse: unlimited government.

The crux of some reformers' arguments is that government needs to be manipulated by objective puritans. Moneyed interests interfere with the noble manipulations of the public health movement and other groups. Writing about the reform proponent Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in the New York Times Magazine, Michael Lewis wrote that "[h]e wants to clean up campaign financing and restore honor to the heart of politics." Lewis illustrates the argument that government is noble when righteous bureaucrats abuse liberty and nasty when big business tells government to abuse liberty.

To that argument, the best response is that both abuses are wrong, but that at least, in an open system, one can buy his liberty back. If the election system was closed to large donations, an anti-war philanthropist cannot have his company donate large amounts to noninterventionist candidates. Those who want to give money based on ideology, not special interest, would not be free to do so if donation limits were tightened. As a matter of fact, Eugene McCarthy couldn't have challenged LBJ under current laws.

So, was my reductio ad absurdum accurate in that I support the right of corporations to donate as much money as they want to politicians? Yes, just as sure as I do not want there to be any power for special interests to manipulate. If the current political system was eradicated, it would make no difference how much money was in politics, for it would buy nothing.

Michael R. Allen is the editor in chief of SpinTech Magazine.

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