Campaign Finance, Disclosure, and Intimidation

Today Politico Arena asks:

Are conservatives hypocritical to argue for eliminating campaign finance restrictions and disclosure requirements, which they once supported, or does their argument regarding donor harassment carry some weight?

My reply:

Let’s just say that conservatives and libertarians have responded to events. When Obama singles out Romney donors for shame for “betting against America” and implicitly threatens them with investigation and more, when corporations that support the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council are harassed until they withdraw their support, and when petition signers in Los Angeles and Washington State are “outed” and then harassed and threatened by opponents, we’ve reached a new low in our political discourse. It’s not enough to disagree about a political issue: you’ve got to silence and even destroy your opponent.

And for what? So we’ll know that the Koch brothers support Republican candidates and free-market causes, or that George Soros supports Democratic candidates and collectivist causes? As if we didn’t know that already. The rationale for disclosure is as phony as the corruption-prevention rationale for our myriad federal and state campaign finance restrictions. Long before those restrictions were enacted, quid-pro-quo corruption was effectively prohibited by our ordinary laws, as it still is today in about half of our states. In the rest, and at the federal level, restrictions work simply to benefit incumbents and, where disclosure is required, to enable those who are so inclined to harass and intimidate their opponents.

The rationale for the confidentiality of campaign contributions is no less persuasive than the rationale for the secret ballot. Would proponents of disclosure want to eliminate the secret ballot, so we know who’s voting for whom? (There’s an opportunity for intimidation!) Then why treat contributions any differently? Sure, rich people can contribute more than poor people. But for every Wall Street there’s a Hollywood, for every corporation there’s a union (with unique advantages), so no one has a corner of contributors—unless, of course, campaign finance laws rig the game in one direction. And so we’re back to incumbent protection, the dirty little secret of the “reform” game.