Just about everyone would like to reduce special interest influence and change how political campaigns raise money and. But if it was easy to do, it would have happened long ago.
The people advocating government funding of campaigns with tax dollars argue that their plan is the silver bullet solution to special interest influence in politics. But this is a very old idea that has always suffered from many problems, and hanging an appealing new name on it “clean money politics” doesn’t change that. The founding fathers debated solving influence peddling by government funding of campaigns and rejected the idea. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “To compel a man to furnish contribution of money to the propagation of opinions to which he does not agree is sinful and tyrannical.”
That is the heart of the matter. You can’t fix one situation that seems unfair-undue influence by big spenders—with a different form of injustice-forcing people to support candidates they don’t agree with.
Right now most people choose to speak politically by not giving to campaigns. They don’t want to, are not motivated to, they just don’t like any of the candidates enough to give one their money. But government funding of campaigns puts and end to saying no to politicians, and instead says, tough, we are all going to fund campaigns, like it or not.
Even worse, anyone who can get a modest group of people to give $5 to support their candidacy can get government funding of their campaign. So a savvy Ku Klux Klan can rally their members and get who knows how many candidates into local, state, and federal elections, fueled by tax dollars. How fundamentally offensive to black voters to have their tax money going to support candidates who would deny them even human rights. Similarly, how unfair to use pro-choice taxpayers’ money to fund the campaigns of pro-life candidates.
Government funding of political campaigns creates countless situations where people are effectively forced to support abhorrent candidates. And it empowers those who many would find abhorrent to game the system. Every extremist group around just needs to get enough members to put up $5 each, and then the taxpayers will pay for their candidates to bombard us with their twisted or hateful views. They can’t pass the market test to raise funds on their own, but with taxpayer funding they have a marketing bonanza.
In California individual contribution limits are already very low and no candidate depends much at all on any one group of financial supporters. Instead, the big money goes into “independent expenditures”-ads and messages from political parties and issue groups in support of a candidate. Government funding of individual campaigns will drive even more special interest money into these “independent expenditures.”
And part of the proposal is that any candidate running with government funding gets matching funds to keep his or her campaign up with any big expenditures by rich candidates using their own money and big “independent expenditures.” So a savvy political operative for “candidate Smith” will funnel money into ads that appear to support an opponent. “Support Bob Jones, he has the courage to increase sales taxes to fund the new roads we need.” Such an ad on its face supports Bob Jones, but may actually hurt him, and requires the government to give more funds to Smith to run competing ads. Smith comes out great, with pro-Jones ads actually undermining Jones, and more government funds to spend on pro-Smith ads.
Think of all the ways political campaign consultants can find to manipulate such a system. It makes “wag the dog” look like child’s play.
Political campaigns are not run for the good of the public-they are attempts by people to get into political office for their own reasons and ends. In a proper democracy they are supposed to appeal to us, to win our support, not appeal to the government for money.
The damage of government funding of campaigns is not limited to violating our rights and empowering campaign consultants who specialize in dirty tricks. Statewide campaigns in California cost hundreds of millions of dollars each election. Local government campaigns cost hundreds of millions more. Where are we going to cut spending to pay for campaigns? Fewer teachers? Fewer roads? Less health care? Is a futile attempt to fix the problems of politics and greed more important than basic quality of life issues?
It doesn’t have to be like that. Our system has plenty of pumpkin-sized warts on it. But government funding of hate candidates isn’t the fix. Howard Dean ran a campaign that was remarkable for how it mobilized and empowered a whole new class of small contributors. Emily’s List innovated new ways to bring like-minded folks with little money together to make a big impact on political campaigns. We should be looking at ways to advance more such innovations based on free choices, not resurrecting bad ideas that have been repudiated for centuries.
Adrian Moore, Ph. D., is vice president of research at Reason Foundation.