Commentary

Public Shouldn’t Pay

This article appeared in the USA Today on June 26, 2006.

Campaign-finance laws often raise questions about restricting freedom of speech. Public financing seems to foster more speech by giving candidates money. But such laws restrict liberty in other ways. Government does not fund public financing; taxpayers do. These programs force taxpayers to support candidates they oppose.

Taxpayer financing often involves further limiting private contributions and restricting independent spending by anyone other than the candidates and the two major political parties. Such restrictions are inherent in public funding; without them, candidates would reject public funding for fear of being outspent by their opponents. Advocates say public financing brings more electoral competition, giving voters more choices, but most studies indicate such programs have not increased competition in state elections.

They might also have other unwanted effects. Jeffrey Milyo, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and David Primo, of the University of Rochester, studied gubernatorial races and found public financing was associated with lower trust in government. This is not surprising considering that polls show little support for taxpayer campaign financing, and that the number of people who support the presidential public funding program on their tax returns has dwindled to 11%.

Advocates also argue that private contributions corrupt government, implying that taxpayers should replace private donors. Professors Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder of MIT examined more than 40 academic studies and concluded that private contributions have little influence.

There is a larger issue here: Few Americans believe the government should control the financing of newspapers and television because public funding of the media would enable public officials to restrict or even eliminate spending on ideas that challenged the political status quo. Complete public financing of campaigns would pose the same danger to candidates and causes — the very sources of change and choice. Private funding of private political activity is thus vital to our limited and democratic government.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.