Second Verse, Same as the First

Twitter fight!

Yesterday morning, a line in a New York Times article by Nick Confessore offered me the opportunity for mirthful needling that turned into a full-blown, impossibly brief exchange of views on Twitter.

The article was on Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s plan to elect candidates who are committed to his version of campaign finance reform. It quoted Lessig saying, “Inside-the-Beltway people don’t think this issue matters, they don’t think voters vote on the basis of this issue, and they advise their politicians not to talk about it.”

So I tweeted: “I don’t think this issue matters.” Then I tweeted: “Voters don’t vote on the basis of this issue.” (I didn’t bother with the rest because I don’t advise politicians.)

I’m inside the beltway! I’m a people! How could I not?!

Responding to another NYT reporter’s question, I touted my own work as “speech-friendly reform,” linking to our upcoming event on congressional Wikipedia editing. Just think of the prospects if legislative staff—some of the foremost experts about the bills in Congress—contributed information about notable bills to Wikipedia for the public to peruse ahead of congressional debates.

Professor Lessig took the crumb of bait, asking me “how is more speech not speech friendly #Escapethe1990s.” (I still don’t know what the hashtag means.) Assuming he was still working on public/taxpayer funded campaigns—I’m not a follower of Lessig’s in the Twitter sense or any other—I tweeted about the wrong of forcing people to pay to money to support speech with which they disagree.

Lessig’s plan is not detailed on the website of his “Mayday PAC,” which only offers gauzy promises of “fundamental reform.” After some back and forth, I learned that Lessig’s reform plan is not direct public funding, in which taxpayer money goes from the Treasury to campaigns, but indirect. He would rebate $50 in taxes in the form of a “democracy voucher.” The taxpayer could give the voucher to any candidate who pledges only to take such vouchers, it could go to the political party of the taxpayer, or “if an independent, back to this public funding system.”

It seems clear from the description to which Lessig pointed me that if your preferred candidate is none of the above, your money will be used to fund political candidates that you don’t support. This is the evil of direct taxpayer funding of campaigns—taking money from a person to support speech of which he or she disapproves. But even when used, the voucher is thinly disguised taxpayer funding of campaigns.

With the federal government financing much of its activity through debt, a tax foregone, such as through this proposed voucher program, results directly in greater debt. That debt is a liability of all taxpayers, which must be financed and repaid by all, including the ones who prefer to support no candidate.

Progressives refer to this kind of thing as a “tax expenditure” because it’s so like spending. (I don’t use the term because it’s premised on the idea that all of society’s wealth is the property of the government, which, in failing to collect it, spends it.) The “democracy voucher” is a tax break that subsidizes political speech, something about which the Constitution says Congress shall make no law.

(It’s different from school vouchers. There is no First Amendment objection to funding of schooling like there is to government funding of political campaigning. Voucher-funding of religious schools that might offend the establishment clause can be sufficiently attenuated from government action by private choice.)

I know and work with a lot of good people who prioritize campaign finance reform of various stripes. Campaign finance transparency is a valid political demand, of course, because voters are entitled to draw negative inferences from opacity and from campaign funding that comes from sources they don’t like. But Lessig’s proposal is old wine in new bottles, barely masking the fact that it puts the government in the business of promoting political speech. There is just no role—no role—for the government in managing the terms of debate over who shall be elected. A thumb under one scale is no different from a thumb atop the other.

Why is this one process reform—campaign finance—so fascinating to such a large community? The funding of campaigns certainly does influence the experience, perceptions, and priorities of elected officials. But it is far from the only influence or even the most important one. There is a limited foundation for the idea that campaign finance reform actually matters.

Rather than one input to policymaking—how representatives are elected—why not focus on improving the public’s access to information about outputs? At Cato, we’re producing data that reflects the content of bills.  It seems to me—and I lack validating research as well—that a public made aware of what is happening in Congress would be more inclined to get involved and take some position on legislation. People might even intervene with their legislators during their terms of office to seek the policies they want. Election day is not the one time the public gets to oversee the government.

Professor Lessig has advocated against transparency, though, because it might “push any faith in our political system over the cliff.” That’s rigging the game. Faith in our political system is not a legitimate goal. It might be produced by a political system that serves the American people better, of course. Is Lessig working to give the people what they want or to give the people what Lessig wants? Top-down rules aimed at controlling which “voices” have more and less power in electoral politics are highly suspect.

Professor Lessig’s pitch for “democracy vouchers” cites Cato Institute estimates on corporate welfare. But agreement on the ills of corporate welfare should be no sign that Cato or its scholars align with the campaign for government management of political speech. Professor Lessig has sought to portray Cato as an ally before. Others can speak for themselves, but I think that government transparency is far preferable to government participation in any part of electioneering.