Thursday, March 02, 2006

Campaign-Finance "Reform" Takes a Beating

In oral arguments over Vermont’s law sharply restricting campaign donations (Randall v. Sorrell), newly minted Chief Justice John Roberts took William B. Sorrell, Vermont’s attorney general, to the woodshed (from the SCOTUS blog):

Q (Justice Roberts): “How many prosecutions have you had for political corruption in Vermont?”

A (Mr. Sorrell): “Not any.”

Q: “Is political corruption a problem in Vermont?"

A (paraphrased): 70 percent of the citizens think so.

Q: "Would you describe your state as clean or corrupt?"

A: No one has gone to jail (paraphrase), but "the threat of corruption in Vermont is far from illusory."

In this brief exchange Chief Justice Roberts demonstrates the absurdity of campaign-finance reform. Allegedly it promotes corruption, but no one – not Sen. McCain, not Rep. Meehan, no one – is willing to say that in a particular instance money bought a result. Campaign-spending limits are not about corruption, but about increasing the probability that legislatures will achieve some outcomes and not others.

I assume that in politics money commonly buys results, but so what? Money allegedly destroys “democracy,” because the rich have more influence than the poor. All voters should be equal, the argument goes. But this is silly. Money is one of many resources that can be translated into political pressure. To focus only on it is to unfairly subsidize certain forms of political activism and to tax others. It is true that a corporation (or a union, or a rich financier like the lefties George Soros or Jon Corzine, the governor of New Jersey who funded his own campaign) with a lot of money can use it to buy influence. It’s also true that people with a lot of free time to devote to writing letters, knocking on doors, running pressure groups for little pay, etc. can also use their cheap time to gain disproportionate influence. Ultimately, money is simply one input among many in the generation of political pressure, and there is little evidence that it is more important than time or others that citizens might bring to bear. But no one proposes, for example, that in conjunction with ceilings on money spent influencing elections citizens should be prohibited from spending more than a certain number of hours per week engaging in political activity.

There is no way that every citizen’s voice can be equalized. Citizens have different resources they can bring to the political-pressure game, and there is no just reason to arbitrarily limit the force of only one, money. Such restrictions also violate what seems to me to be a fundamental right of citizens to defend themselves against government redistribution, even if it sometimes results in redistribution toward those citizens who spend the most money. The core problem, of course, is that the government is in a position to do so much redistributing to begin with. It is also true that campaign-finance limits amount to the erection of entry barriers for the protection of incumbents, with corresponding toxic effects on the Republic. But another primary reason to oppose them is that they are simply unfair, restricting some ways of generating political pressure and not others.

Chief Justice Roberts is still an unknown quantity, but at least in this instance I love what I’ve seen so far.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel that the push for campaign finance reform comes from people seeing that people with money/time are getting their way in politics and the disorganized poor folks are upset. I believe, like you said, that restricting the amount of money people can donate to their favorite candidate seems wrong, but the swaying by lobbyists cannot be whats best for our country. I feel that a politicians job is not to do whats best for few but whats best for all.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

The only reason we have politics in the first place, of course, is that we disagree about what's best for all. :)

9:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe whats best for all is not the right way to say it. More like whats best for the idea behind our country. I'm a romantic and really believe in the idea that the forfathers had when they fought for independence and wrote the constitution. I really think that Washington nad friends wanted self government and little reliance on the governement by the people. I believe that people today are lazy and dont understand that if you don't work for it you freedom will be taken from you whether it be by a foriegn power or our own governement. Big contributers to campaigns are not officially part of the government but they are wielding alot of political power. I think that there is too much seperation in mind set between the politicians and the common folk today. I don't think that politicians should work for free or have to spend a set amount of time in the ghetto but I think that the common folk are being left behind. Campaign finance is just a legal way for people to get what they want in government. I am not sure if there is a solution without intruding on peoples rights but something is obviously wrong with the system.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

Maybe whats best for all is not the right way to say it.

No, it's the perfect way to say it. The ONLY reason to turn to government for anything, is to FORCE a one-size-fits-all "solution" on people, whether they like it or not.

Campaign finance is just a legal way for people to get what they want in government.

How does restricting the ability of a citizen or group of citizen equate to helping them get what they want? That's completely contradictory.

I am not sure if there is a solution without intruding on peoples rights but something is obviously wrong with the system.

What's wrong with the "system" is that government is so goddamned big and powerful, that it attracts people who seek to harness its power to enrich themselves or destroy their competitors.

As someone once said..."It's not the abuse of power, it's the power to abuse." If we made government government smaller and less powerful, incapable of handing out many favors, there would be fewer people trying to corrupt the system in search of these favors.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Libertarian Jason makes a great point. The problem is the wrong people are in government. If government was shrunk and not given so much power it would lead to a weeding out of corrupt, power hungry, type characters. I am not in favor of campaign finance reform. Please allow people to do with their money as they please, its their money. My beef is that the margianal return for campaign finance contributions is better than the products these lobbyists got rich off of.

1:40 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

My beef is that the margianal return for campaign finance contributions is better than the products these lobbyists got rich off of.

No question about it. But that is a function of how much government is in a position to redistribute wealth to those who can deliver the votes (or more direct bribes such as golf trips to Scotland, as we learn from the Abramoff affair).

It is pretty well-known in the economics literature that states with less power to take from me and give to thee are less prone to bribery by both thee and me. Corruption, as I like to say, is a function of the number of things to be corrupt about.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

The problem is the wrong people are in government.

Actually, my point was exactly the opposite. Its not that we need "better" people to manage big government...as is the common mantra of Marxist types who use that as a rationale for why every marxist regime turns into a tyrannical dictatorship....and was the same argument used by Republicans to justify the horrible response to Katrina....

Putting the "right" people in charge is the wrong answer. The problem is, as Evan pointed out, the size of government.

12:00 PM  

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