Tag: elections

Private Vice, Public Virtue

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Would the House plan to vote next week on a proposal to end the system of financing presidential candidates and national conventions with federal funds wisely put to rest a public financing scheme that never worked well, or would it eliminate a bulwark against political corruption by forcing candidates to rely entirely on private money?

My response:

The decades long effort by the Left to finance presidential candidates and national conventions with federal funds – part of the Left’s more ambitious effort to finance all political campaigns with public funds – never worked as proponents hoped it would, with taxpayer participation through check-offs declining from 28.7 percent in 1980 to 7.3 percent in 2009 – and for good reason.

The corruption-prevention rationale was always bogus. And the idea that public financing would itself be corruption free didn’t pass the straight-face test. The American people may be dumb (quiet), but they’re not stupid! They’ll make their political contributions directly – thank you – not through the government – if the law allows them that right, which at present is highly regulated. Let’s hope that this move by the new House is only the first step toward removing government completely from the campaign financing business.

Democracy in Tunisia?

In the wake of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication in Tunisia on Friday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the need for quick elections in a country that has never known democracy, freedom of the press, or the rule of law:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton …  reacted Friday to Ben Ali’s departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections.

“We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social and political reforms,” she said… .

President Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and urged the government to hold elections that “reflect the true will and aspirations” of Tunisians.

I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s concerns about the blithe promotion of elections in his article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (pdf; later expanded into a book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad):

…for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms—what might be termed constitutional liberalism—is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.” Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not….

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law….

Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power…. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The “Western model” is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge….

It is odd that the United States is so often the advocate of elections and plebiscitary democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on electoral majorities….

While it is easy to impose elections on a country, it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism on a society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term, in which an election is only one step. Without appropriate preparation, it might even be a false step….

Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is—instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections—to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.

Let’s hope that the new leaders and the newly active citizens of Tunisia focus on developing freedom of the press, civil liberties, the rule of law, and constitutional limits on the power of government–including economic policies (pdf) more conducive to growth and progress–even as they move toward holding elections.

Independent Agencies Test Tea Party Mettle

Is there something special about December? Perhaps it’s the spirit of giving that had the Federal Communications Commission voting yesterday to regulate Internet service. At the beginning of the month—December 1st—the Federal Trade Commission issued a report signaling its willingness to regulate online businesses.

No, it’s not the fact that it’s December. It’s the fact that it’s after November.

November—that’s the month when we had the mid-term election. The FCC and FTC appear to have held off coming out with their regulatory proposals ahead of the elections because the Obama administration couldn’t afford any more evidence that it heavily favors government control of the economy and society.

There was already plenty of evidence out there, of course, but the election is past now, and the administration has taken its lumps. It’s an open question whether there will be a second Obama term, so the heads of the FCC and FTC are swinging into action. They’ll get done what they can now, during the period between elections when the public pays less attention.

And that is a challenge to the Tea Party movement, which would be acting predictably if it lost interest in politics and public policy during the long year or more before the next election cycle gets into full swing. Politicians know—and the heads of independent agencies are no less political than anyone else—that the public loses focus after elections. That’s the time for agencies to quietly move the agenda—during the week before Christmas, for example.

So it’s not the spirit of giving—it’s the spirit of hiding—that has these independent agencies moving forward right now. It’s up to the public, if it cares about liberty and constitutionally limited government, to muster energy and outrage at the latest moves to put the society under the yoke of the ruling class. Both the FCC and the FTC lack the power to do what they want to do, but Congress will only rein them in if Congress senses that these are important issues to their active and aware constituents.

Ballot Initiatives Provide Underappreciated Election-Night Victories

Last week, I highlighted nine ballot initiatives that were worth watching because of their policy implications and/or their role is showing whether voters wanted more or less freedom. The results, by and large, are very encouraging. Let’s take a look at the results of those nine votes, as well as a few additional key initiatives.

1. The big spenders wanted to impose an income tax in the state of Washington, and they even had support from too-rich-to-care Bill Gates. The good news is that this initiative got slaughtered by a nearly two-to-one margin.  I was worried about this initiative since crazy  Oregon voters approved higher tax rates earlier this year. In a further bit of good news, Washington voters also approved a supermajority requirement for tax increases by a similar margin.

2. Nevada voters had a chance to vote on eminent domain abuse. This is an initiative that I mischaracterized in my original post. The language made it sound like it was designed to protect private property, but it actually was proposed by the political elite to weaken a property rights initiative that the voters previously had imposed. Fortunately, Nevada voters did not share my naiveté and the effort to weaken eminent domain protections was decisively rejected.  This is important, of course, because of the Supreme Court’s reprehensible Kelo decision.

3. California voters were predictably disappointing. They rejected the initiative to legalize marijuana, thus missing an opportunity to adopt a more sensible approach to victimless crimes. The crazy voters from the Golden State also kept in place a suicidal global warming scheme that is driving jobs out of the state. The only silver lining in California’s dark cloud is that voters did approve a supermajority requirement for certain revenue increases.

4. Nearly 90 percent of voters in Kansas approved an initiative to remove any ambiguity about whether individuals have the right to keep and bear arms. Let that be a warning to those imperialist Canadians, just in case they’re plotting an invasion.

5. Arizona voters had a chance to give their opinion on Obamacare. Not surprisingly, they were not big fans, with more than 55 percent of them supporting an initiative in favor of individual choice in health care. A similar initiative was approved by an even greater margin in Oklahoma. Shifting back to Arizona, voters also strongly rejected racial and sexual discrimination by government, but they narrowly failed to approve medical marijuana.

6. Shifting to the local level, San Francisco, one of the craziest cities in America rejected a proposal to require bureaucrats to make meaningful contributions to support their bloated pension and health benefits. On the other hand, voters did approve a proposal to ban people from sleeping on sidewalks. Who knew that was a big issue?

7. Sticking with the ever-amusing Golden State, voters unfortunately eliminated the requirement for a two-thirds vote in the legislature to approve a budget, thus making it even easier for politicians to increase the burden of government spending. The state almost certainly is already on a path to bankruptcy, and this result will probably hasten its fiscal demise. Hopefully, the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives will say no when soon-to-be Governor Brown comes asking for a bailout.

8. The entire political establishment in Massachusetts was united in its opposition to an initiative to to roll back the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, and they were sucessful. But 43 percent of voters approved, so maybe there’s some tiny sliver of hope for the Bay State.

9. Louisiana voters approved an initiative to require a two-thirds vote to approve any expansion of taxpayer-financed benefits for government employees. With 65 percent of voters saying yes to this proposal, this is a good sign that the bureaucrat gravy train may finally be slowing down.

At the risk of giving a grade, I think voters generally did a good job when asked to directly make decisions. I give them a solid B.

Fear and Stasis

The Obama administration’s attacks on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce look a lot like a three-day story on its final day. The national media had its doubts, and even Democratic operatives decried the gambit.

Why did the administration go after the Chamber? The politics are not hard to figure out. Earlier actions of the Obama administration mobilized the Republican base. At the same time, the President and his party have been losing the support of independents for a year or so. Their only hope of limiting the electoral damage was to rally the Democratic base, who are discouraged and divided.

The Democratic base might agree about what they don’t like and fear: business, money in politics, and foreigners — or at least, foreigners spending money on politics. The attack on the Chamber of Commerce appealed to all three. The administration hoped that fear would engender hatred and hatred would bring people to the polls to vote against business and the GOP.

The most surprising part of the attack was the rather naked appeal to anti-foreign bias (see Bryan Caplan’s discussion of this concept here). Most people think of Democrats as friendly to undocumented foreign workers. But Democrats are first of all egalitarians; for them, the whole point of politics is to help the oppressed and harm the oppressor.  They do not favor undocumented foreigners because they believe people have a right to free exchange, borders notwithstanding. Instead, Democrats see undocumented foreigners as victims of oppression by American businesses. Foreigners who have enough money to spend on elections are oppressors in the egalitarian mind.

Obama promised hope and change. He and his party now want to maintain — so far as possible — the political status quo (that is, their control of Congress).  To do that they are trying to prompt fear and hatred among their most loyal voters. The new motto of the administration appears to be: fear and stasis.

Of course, the administration had no evidence the charges were true and argued that the Chamber should be seen as guilty until proven innocent. All in all, the whole affair suggests desperation and a complete loss of constraint in pursuing a political end. It suggests, I think, conduct that used to be covered by the word “Nixonian.”

Clean Elections Act Dirties the First Amendment

In 1998, after years of scandals ranging from governors being indicted to legislators taking bribes, Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. This law was intended to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.

Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. In short, if a privately funded candidate spends more than his publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the law, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech. Indeed, ample evidence introduced at trial in a lawsuit challenging the law showed that privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, the matching funds provision of the Clean Elections Act diminishes the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. FEC struck down a similar provision in the federal McCain-Feingold law in which individually wealthy candidates were penalized for spending their own money by triggering increased contribution limits for their opponents. Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato has thus filed a brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review the lower court’s decision upholding Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  We highlight Davis (in which Cato also filed a brief) and numerous other cases that point to a clear conclusion: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money (Arizona’s act automatically disburses matching funds) is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of our political debate, but it ignores the fundamental principle upon which the First Amendment is premised: that the government cannot be trusted to regulate political speech for the public benefit. 

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to review this case, McComish v. Bennett.

A Party Thumb On the Primary Scale?

Today Politico Arena asks:

Should national party organizations stay out of primaries?

My response:

Political parties are, strictly speaking, private entities. Therefore, they’re free to insinuate themselves into primary contests, or not. But as they do, so they will be judged.

Haley Barbour was absolutely right, therefore, to say that national party organizations shouldn’t endorse (ordinarily, incumbents) in primaries – much less assist one candidate over others. To the extent they do, they confirm the view of many Americans that the political class is more interested in preserving power – its own – than in governing for the common good under constitutional principle.

Do we need any better evidence than the way Republicans ran from the term limits plank in the Contract with America after they took over Congress in 1995? Oh, I forgot, there is better evidence: the way Democrats never even paid lip service to term limits.