Commentary

Best Campaign-Finance Reform Is No Limits

This essay originally appeared in USA Today.
The November election is shaping up as a horror show for campaign reformers.

Republican George W. Bush has raised and spent more money than any other candidate in history. Democrat Al Gore, of Buddhist-temple fame, participated in the Democratic Party’s extravagant rule breaking in 1996. Running-mate Joseph Lieberman makes the rules look bad by living up to them.

The current system is broken. The only thing worse is every proposed reform.

Fundraising will never be pretty. But then, neither is politics: As Germany’s Otto Von Bismarck famously said, no one should watch his sausages or his laws being made.

The main business of Congress today is income redistribution. Social Security takes from the young and gives to the old. The Export-Import Bank takes from workers and gives to corporations. Obscure environmental regulations and tax changes advantage particular firms and industries.

As long as Uncle Sam hands out nearly $2 trillion in loot every year and uses its rule-making power to enrich or impoverish entire industries, individuals and companies will spend millions to influence the process.

And they have a perfect right to do so.

Attempting to limit donations by “special interests” will affect all citizens, since all belong to one special interest or another. Blocking out-of-state contributions is unfair as long as legislators can vote on measures that affect out-of-state residents. Public financing denies citizens the basic right of political participation. It also forces taxpayers to underwrite candidates whom they despise.

Any attempt to manipulate the election rules merely aids other participants. For instance, cutting corporate “soft money” would benefit labor unions, which often deploy legions of volunteers. And almost every “reform” would turn more power over to journalists, who already control the main channels through which candidates transmit their ideas. People who don’t work at a newspaper such as USA TODAY use financial donations to make their opinions known.

The right reform is to drop all rules except full disclosure. Then let citizens take a candidate’s fundraising practices into account when they vote. Most important, reformers should work to shrink government. Special interests would work rather than politic with a less-expensive and intrusive state.

Doug Bandow is a former domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House, a lawyer and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.