Uncommon Sense in the Campaign Finance Debates

Michael Kinsley has a very sensible take on the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision that is particularly notable because he refuses to join the chorus of unfocused, hysterical complaints about money in politics emanating from many of his colleagues on the left. Kinsley makes two good points:

First, the notion that limiting campaign money does not limit speech is hogwash. Kinsley makes the point artfully by imagining a “Freedom from the Press Act” whose purpose is to limit the amount of money the media spends complaining about the amount of money other people spend on political speech. Restricting the amounts of money the media could devote to publishing newspapers or running broadcasting studios would obviously limit the amount of speech they produced with that money.

Second, if you don’t want candidates to raise lots of campaign money, vote for different candidates. Kinsley puts the point slightly differently, owing to his sympathy for the view that there’s something unseemly about rich people funding political campaigns, but that is the gist of his point. Stop complaining about campaign money and try to convince candidates to give it all up.

I don’t share Kinsley’s concern about money in politics, but I admire his respect for the rights of voters and candidates to decide the issue for themselves. It would be an interesting experiment — eliminate the campaign finance laws and see if voters only support the candidates who reject large donations and expensive campaigns. I don’t think they would or should for a couple reasons.

One is that campaigns are expensive. The fact is, it costs a lot to communicate to a lot of people. Campaign money has to come from somewhere. Forcing candidates to raise it in smaller increments means they have to spend more time fundraising, which prompts the complaint — from the same people who complain about large donations — that candidates spend too much time on fundraising.

Another is that Americans should want to influence elections, because elections influence their lives. In other words, the problem is not that money controls politics, but that politics — that is, government — controls money, property, and practically everything else in our lives.

What is the real limit on government power today? It isn’t the Constitution, which a century’s worth of bad Supreme Court decisions has left practically in tatters. The unpleasant reality is that government power is limited by little more than majority will. If politicians and their allies can corral enough voters into their camps, they can manage to ram through the laws and policies they want.

The predictable result is a mad dash to influence voters the way people rush to snatch up merchandise at a one-day sale. The rule is tax or be taxed; regulate or be regulated; spend the other guy’s money or have yours spent; influence or be “influenced.”

Our primary concern should not be who tries to influence government, but why. What does government do that makes influencing it so necessary? The answer is everything, which is exactly the problem.

So here’s another suggestion. Instead of voting for candidates who agree to limit the amount of money they raise, how about if we vote only for candidates who agree to limit the amount of power they wield? The proper purpose of government is to protect our rights. Limit its power to that, and the other problems solve themselves.