This presidential campaign will be, by far, the most expensive in U.S. history. And it is ironic that John McCain, the co-author of McCain-Feingold, is one of the candidates hustling to raise tens of millions of dollars. One thing is for sure: No matter who wins, the call for more campaign finance legislation will intensify — all in the name of combating the allegedly corrupting influence of money on politics. This is ominous, because what campaign finance restrictions actually do is subject political speech to the corrupting influence of government control.
Under current law, we are severely limited in how much we can donate to candidates, political parties and political committees. We are also subject to bans on radio and TV ads that might — crime of crimes — impact the victory or defeat of a candidate we favor or oppose. What justifies these restrictions on our freedom?
Without them, advocates say, the wealthy would control political speech. They would use their vast resources to promote their candidates while locking out those unable to run expensive ads. Americans would be left without access to the information necessary to make informed political decisions. Elected politicians would be beholden to rich financial backers, whom they’ll have to pay off with special favors. The solution to this mess, the argument goes, is obvious: The government must “level the playing field” by limiting wealthy Americans’ ability to use their money in the political debate.
But let us, as Ayn Rand so often advised, check our premises.
What is the actual effect of wealth on political speech? Is it true that a diversity of political viewpoints would be shut out without campaign finance restrictions? Clearly not, when wealthy Americans include a vast diversity of individuals, and when we are free to watch Fox News or CNN, read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, listen to Rush Limbaugh or Air America, visit Instapundit or Daily Kos. No private citizen (or corporation), however wealthy, has the power to censor the speech of others. He can refuse to support, finance or promote ideas or candidates he disagrees with — which is his inalienable right — but he cannot forcibly suppress them. Jack Welch could choose not to contribute to MoveOn.org; he can’t forbid them to speak or us to listen.
It’s ludicrous, not to mention insulting, to American voters, to think that elections are won by the candidate with the most ads. Huckabee spent $13 million on his campaign; Giuliani, $64 million; Romney, $105 million. Why did Huckabee garner so much more support? The fact is, whether rich or poor, candidates must persuade voters.
A wealthy individual can spend lavishly on ads, even buy an entire newspaper or broadcast station, to convince Americans of his viewpoint; he cannot force us to listen or agree. At the same time, a candidate lacking money is free to seek financial support from citizens who agree with him, whether it be a few wealthy individuals or millions of like-minded Americans who are willing to put their money where his mouth is. This is what explains the unexpected financial success of Ron Paul’s and Barack Obama’s campaigns — and note that current restrictions actually make fund-raising for this type of outside candidate more difficult.
It’s true that in a free system, money does give you a greater ability to get your message out; this is precisely one of the reasons it’s desirable to earn wealth. If this is what campaign finance advocates regard as corrupt, which system would they regard as uncorrupt? One in which a person’s ability to promote his viewpoint is unrelated to the financial resources he’s earned (whether personally or through voluntary contributions).
This is why campaign finance advocates have not been appeased by McCain-Feingold, and are calling for complete public financing of political elections. Under such a system, candidates would no longer have to financially earn the platform from which they speak; instead, the government would furnish candidates with your tax dollars. Of course, not every potential candidate could receive public funding under such a system: Only “serious” candidates would.
Who decides which candidate is serious? Those presently holding government power. There is no surer way to create a political aristocracy in America.
Only the government has the power to stifle free speech and replace persuasion with coercion. Although the advocates of campaign finance “reform” have not managed a complete government takeover of election financing yet, they have already managed to deprive many Americans of their freedom.
What have the current restrictions actually meant in practice? They have meant that the makers of a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton have been banned from broadcasting their film on television. They have meant that a grass-roots organization seeking to evaluate political candidates (on their commitment to free speech, ironically) must go to court to plead government permission to do so.
They have meant that untold numbers of Americans — both potential candidates and supporters — have abandoned political participation rather than face the difficulty of fund-raising under current restrictions, and the possibility of crippling fines and harsh prison sentences should they unknowingly fail to comply with today’s tortuously convoluted campaign finance laws. One survey found that only 41% of participants could correctly complete all the required campaign finance disclosure forms, a prerequisite for engaging in virtually any kind of organized political activity.
And current campaign finance restrictions already seem to be moving us toward a political aristocracy. Incumbent politicians typically go into elections with massive advantages in name-recognition and fund-raising ability. To have a hope of unseating them, challengers often need large cash infusions from a small number of donors — something expressly forbidden by campaign finance laws. The Center for Competitive Politics notes that “since contribution limits were first enacted at the federal level, successful challenger campaigns have plummeted by 50%.” Campaign finance reform has done nothing to get corruption out of politics, but it has been effective at keeping (corrupt) politicians in politics.
Yet despite all this, you might still be wondering: Can’t large contributions buy political favors? They can — when politicians have power to grant special favors to special interests in the first place. In today’s Washington, it’s not just money that purchases favors. Politicians dispense favors for the sake of prestige (say, their name on a bridge), for the purpose of appeasing vocal critics lobbying against them, for the attempt to win your vote (say, a pet project in your district that will create jobs), etc.
It’s not money that corrupts — it’s the lure of arbitrary political power. A true crusader against political corruption would not strip American citizens of their right to free speech; he would seek to put an end to the government’s power to grant special favors to any group.
Sen. McCain was once asked whether McCain-Feingold abridges freedom of speech. He implicitly admitted that it does: “I would rather have a clean government than one where quote ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I’d rather have the clean government.” We should tell Sen. McCain and those who agree with him that a government which strips us of our right to free speech is by that very fact corrupt.
It’s time to reject this pernicious view and restore the First Amendment. It’s time to abolish campaign finance laws.