Reason Is No Guarantee: The Case of Campaign Finance Reform

March 26, 2002 • Commentary

The late Sidney Hook — who was one of the early dissenters from the American Left on the matter of whether the Soviet Union is worthy of any admiration and loyalty, and a pretty formidable philosopher and scholar in his own right — had a lament he told me about. We were at the Hoover Institution together, he as a senior scholar, I as a temporary fellow, back in the mid‐​1970s. On one occasion he told me that the major disappointment in his life had been the discovery that reason is ineffective. Regardless of how conscientiously one makes use of it, the results won’t necessarily be good.

This came to mind when the Senate passed the new campaign finance bill, which President Bush promised to sign. It will almost certainly become one of those futile laws that achieves none of what its supporters hope for — namely, remove money from politics. How could it?

So long as government is in the business of taking wealth from us and then sending some of it back to a select few, citizens will try to pay off officials so they are the recipients of the largess, not others. Those who believe they are entitled to be given support by this method will work hard to make sure they have the best chance to be the beneficiaries of such wealth redistribution.

Yet the evidence of the ineffectiveness of restraints is clear. People in all ages have done their best to get in front of the line waiting to get a handout from the state. And all the hand‐​wringing and double talk about reform has done nothing to alter this fact.

Reason, wisdom, insight, prudence, and common sense counsels that campaign finance reform is a ruse. Yet millions of people put their faith in various measures to produce such reform. It’s not unlike tax reform. It starts off with the dream of fairness and efficiency, but quickly becomes no more than the production of loopholes and special privileges. The bottom line? There is no way to make a corrupt system good.

As most of us know from both our own and our fellows’ experiences, the temptation to base our actions on dreams rather than hard facts and painful lessons from history is enormous. Instead of trust, which is based on past experience, we often indulge in faith in the impossible.

In this case, millions of people and their political representatives have decided to forget about history and common sense and place on record an impossible dream: campaign finance reform. The idea that governments will henceforth refrain from taking bribes and responding to them with largess is that impossible dream.

What my dear old friend, Sidney Hook, forgot — in his conscientious efforts to make a valuable contribution to the world he loved so much — is that people are free to attempt to indulge their fantasies or impossible dreams even with the best evidence staring them in the face, providing them with the proverbial proof that circles cannot be squared. So we will have this law. It will make billions of dollars for clever legal minds and policy wonks who will quickly learn how to circumvent any new obstacles to buying politicians, and proceed with the old game: Send money to the centers of power in the hope that you’ll be first in line when a bit of it is returned. It is the iron law of the politics of a welfare state.

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