In upholding the major provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the Supreme Court has openly declared that it is legitimate to curtail freedom of speech “marginally” in order to fight government corruption. But the sad reality is that the new laws not only fail to confront the source of corruption in government, by violating free speech they heap even more injustices upon the victims of such corruption.

If stopping the selling of favors in Washington is the goal, why does no one demand that we simply enforce the laws that make such action illegal? After all, we combat police corruption by prosecuting officers who take kickbacks to overlook crimes. We combat judicial corruption by prosecuting judges who accept bribes in exchange for making unjust rulings. Why not similarly go after Congressmen who trade legislative decisions for campaign contributions?

Because the depressing fact is that most of the dispensing of favors, and punishments, is done within the law. Unlike the police or judges, Congressmen (and many other government officials) have legally acquired arbitrary power. They routinely make decisions that are governed, not by objective fact or principle, but by subjective preference.

Suppose that Congress is considering “The Pristine Nature Act,” which would close vast tracts of private land to logging and commercial development. A few timber companies argue that such restrictions on their property would be unfair and hurt their profits. The local homeowners association supports the bill, because it would allow residents to maintain their traditional, bucolic lifestyle. And environmentalists clamor that the trees must be protected from mankind.

What basis should a Congressman use in making his decision? The common answer is that he should do whatever furthers the “public interest.” But which parties count as the “public” and so gain the privilege of having their interests advanced? The timber companies? The neighboring residents? The environmentalists? The trees? The people who would have lived in the houses that would have been built with the timber that would have been harvested? Each is as plausible as the other.

In cases like this, which are endless, the non-objective standard of the “public interest” justifies any decision. Which really means: there is no guiding principle, there is only expediency. A Congressman simply latches on to whatever arguments he finds convenient. The presence or absence of campaign contributions from an affected party is thus as “convincing” a factor as anything else. In fact, this is the essence of lobbying — donating money to an official so that the giver can be granted the magical title of “the public.”

This kind of arbitrary power — not money — is the fundamental source of influence-peddling in Washington. And a true opponent of government corruption would seek to restore the system that was created precisely to eliminate such power: the American system of individual rights. He would advocate the principle that the rights of the individual, including property rights and freedom of speech, are inalienable, and that no invocation of the “public interest” can justify their abrogation. He would realize that the indefinable rule of the “public interest” is what gives government officials unlimited power. He would see that only a severely limited government — limited by the standard of individual rights — has no arbitrary powers to exercise, and to sell.

The proposed campaign-finance reforms, however, target not this power but its principal victims — the people who pay “protection money” to government officials.

Productive businesses today have a gun permanently pointed at their heads — by Washington. They live in constant fear that Congress will pass legislation, in the name of the “public interest,” that can cripple or destroy them. In self-defense, to retain some vestige of control over their fate, they make political contributions to keep the government at bay. They don’t want special favors — they simply want not to be regulated, not to have their property confiscated, not to be denied permission to exist. By permitting restricting on their contributions, the Supreme Court in effect declares: “You, the victim of arbitrary force, will now have virtually no say over your future. You, who want to reduce the power of the state and to fight the cause of government corruption, are to be silenced — in the name of fighting government corruption.” This is unjust and absurd.

True, there are those who make contributions, not to keep what they have earned, but to receive unearned benefits. But here too the solution is to stop the source of those favors, by eliminating the government’s capacity to do whatever it wishes in the name of the “public interest.”

The way to end government corruption is not by further penalizing its victims, but by removing from officials the arbitrary power that they regularly offer up for sale to the highest bidder.