During the 2008 election cycle, the cost of American political campaigns from the presidency to your local school board clocked in at just over $5 billion. While that sounds like a great deal of money, Americans spent $12 billion during that same time at theme parks. The U.S. government spends $5 billion every eleven hours. Perspective is everything.
While I concede to being a serial contrarian, people are none-the-less surprised when I argue that what we need is more money in politics. Or more specifically, a broader, freer market for political speech.
The affect of over 30 years of campaign finance laws have been to strengthen a narrow class of institutional, vested interests in government, business, and labor while stifling the ability of individuals, private institutions, and local interests to push back against the inevitable expansion of the power of those big players while crowding out the non-vested productive class.
Many others have seen the same trend, but the popular response is to pass stricter laws and place greater restraints on the ability of American individuals and institutions to fully participate in the electoral process. I am reminded of the words of the great Thomas Sowell, “When your response to everything that is wrong with the world is to say, ‘there ought to be a law,’ you are saying that you hold freedom very cheap.”
Freedom is indeed the price of controlled elections. Permitting politicians to write laws selecting who may participate and to what extent invariably leads to where we now find ourselves. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United was a somewhat positive, though woefully incomplete step, but so long as the current legal regime exists, only those with the proper connections and positioning will be able to fully participate. It is the middle class, the very engine of liberty and capitalism that will remain marginalized by a highly controlled and manipulated process.
One needs to look no further than the US House of Representatives to see this. I have worked more under-funded congressional campaigns than I care to remember. In most of those campaigns, a handful of max ($2500) donors could have sunk millions into defeating statist incumbents and their corporate/ government handlers if they weren’t hamstrung by campaign finance laws. Despite a Congress with an approval rating hovering near absolute zero, over 90 percent of the members will be re-elected this year. The popular meme is that while people hate congress, they love their member. Bull-hockey.
The reality is that most members never face a credible, well-financed challenger. The institutional advantages are huge and the laws are written to protect incumbents. Faced with strict limits on campaign funding and powerful institutions giving millions to those incumbents with established records of supporting them, the space for a credible challenge is reduced to nearly zero.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, incumbents and challengers were at near spending parity in 1978. Since the era of campaign finance reform, the gap has grown to an average incumbent advantage of about a million dollars per congressional race as of 2010.
If you want the rebels to win, you have to arm them. When a critical mass is achieved, the rebels can and do win, but the system we have today makes it nearly impossible without national exposure or a sufficiently unseemly scandal.
The net effect of any law from jay walking to campaign limits is to replace critical thinking and personal responsibility with prescribed “acceptable” behaviors. At the heart of the concept of campaign finance law is the notion that individuals are too stupid, too disengaged, and too irrational to both give as they see fit and weigh the effects of others’ giving on candidates. A system that stratifies such condescension and paternalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That premise, now established and widely accepted, leads to greater and greater control with a corresponding erosion of a critical and engaged public.
Ignorance is a vessel into which frauds and demagogues pour their propaganda. A well informed public is a necessary condition for a free society and a functioning republic. The very idea of campaign finance controls run counter to our most fundamental American doctrine, a belief that we are each sovereign and are best capable of determining our own interests. That is just as true when punching a ballot or donating to a campaign as when crossing a street.
So I say throw open the doors. Repeal the laws. Bury the FEC in a shallow grave. The amount of monies that campaigns take in and its sources are information that voters should be able to access, but not by fiat or force. The refusal of a candidate to disclose his donors is information that a voter can use as well. It’s time to start giving freedom, and ourselves, a little more credit.