Commentary

The Illiberal Reality of European-Style Campaign Reform

By Patrick Basham
This article was first published on FOXNews.com, March 7, 2002.

Campaign finance reformers tend to glance enviously across the Atlantic. They say the Europeans run their campaigns “so much better” than the Americans. Do they? Take a look at France and Britain.

Both countries’ campaign systems feature strict spending limits, bans on paid political advertising, and free airtime for parties. But the current French presidential campaign and last year’s British election campaign demonstrate that a constrained campaign system is no reformist panacea. Instead, these are grossly over-regulated affairs that offer no solution to our problems (real and imagined).

Under French law, presidential candidates are limited to spending only $16 million during the 12 months prior to this year’s election, the first round of which will be held on April 21. The two candidates progressing to the final round of voting on May 5 may spend an additional $5 million. It is illegal for French parties to accept corporate donations, though politics remains rife with corruption scandals as corporations attempt to covertly influence the interventionist national government.

But don’t lose any sleep over how the parties manage to fund their campaigns in an Enron-free electoral environment. They have found a generous financial patron otherwise known as the coerced French taxpayer. The French government reimburses a proportion of campaign spending depending on the results of the election. For example, conservative President Jacques Chirac and socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the likeliest second round contenders, will both receive $180,000 plus 36 percent of the campaign-spending limit for garnering more than five percent of first round votes.

Last year’s British campaign was an imprudently inexpensive affair. It was the first campaign in which the parties had to comply with strict spending limits. Spending per party was capped at $28 million. The major parties and their candidates collectively spent just $1.65 per eligible voter. That compares with the $13.50 (itself too low) spent per eligible voter by Democratic and Republican parties in the 2000 election.

In practice, money serves as a proxy for political speech, enabling political information to be widely disseminated and increasing the probability of competitive elections. Paltry spending ensures that the respective French and British electorates receive only snippets of information from their parties.

Those spending limits, which apply both to individual candidates and to the national parties, further the cause of incumbency protection. For the average challenger, overcoming the inherent advantages of incumbency (name recognition, subsidized office staff, constituency service, mailings and travel) usually requires outspending the incumbent during the campaign. In the British example, as 63 percent of incumbents were Labor MPs (and 98 percent of Labor MPs were reelected), spending restrictions that hurt challengers suited Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair just fine.

In France, political advertising is banned from radio and television stations. Ditto for Britain. The French government allots each presidential candidate and political party, even those on the extremist fringes of the spectrum, an equal amount of free time on radio and television. Similarly, the major British parties are only permitted to air 5 five-minute “party election broadcasts” on television and radio during the course of the campaign. The one-time nature of these broadcasts severely limits their potential effectiveness, while the length guarantees an inattentive audience.

The British opposition parties’ only recourse was paid advertising on roadside billboards. In the age of the Internet and satellite TV, this is highly inefficient marketing, but for the non-governing parties there weren’ t any other media baskets in which to place their advertising eggs. The situation is worse in French politics where a ban on billboard advertising kicks in four months before the official campaign commences.

The paternalistic nature of French elections even extends to the horse race aspect of the contest. “In order to avoid the election outcome being influenced by public opinion polls,” according to the French government, “their findings may not be published during the week before a ballot.” After all, why would you want to be influenced by polls showing that your first choice candidate stands absolutely no chance of winning but your second choice is in a neck-and-neck race with your least favored candidate?

What did the British electorate receive in return for their more heavily regulated campaign? A highly uncompetitive race (Labor again won 63 percent of the seats), bathed in a sea of substance-free sound bites and highly negative, personal attacks on the party leaders. So high was voter apathy that turnout fell to the lowest level since 1918. The French presidential race promises to be closer but equally negative, issue-less, and personality driven.

Both the British and French experiences illustrate how restrictions on campaign funding, spending, and advertising serve only to rob us of our liberties without solving any of our alleged problems. In all its seductive guises, domestic and continental, campaign finance reform is a siren song to be avoided.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.