The Democrats can’t garner votes in the 2010 general elections by bragging about their legislative achievements—greater government control of our health care, more wasteful spending than ever in human history. Nor can they run on the results of their governing—chronic high unemployment and economic stagnation.
So, of course, they complain about the election process, specifically about campaign spending by what they label “special interest groups.” These are not to be confused with the groups pushing special interests—government employee unions, trial lawyers—that give big bucks to them.
The “process posse” has bemoaned this year’s Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case that struck down provisions of the McCain-Feingold law that limited spending on political speech during election seasons, at just the time that free speech is most needed. The Court rightly said that businesses and unions can spend their own money on ads putting forward their views on the issues of the day.
Americans spend as much each year on yogurt as is spent on political campaigns.
The Dems’ special kvetch this time is that the money is from “unknown” shadowy groups and individuals, some of it from “overseas.” Oh no! Are foreign governments trying to buy our election? This charge concerns minute amounts of money collected as dues from overseas branches of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, money that is sequestered from the Chamber’s political spending and in any case is hardly a secret.
The Dems and liberals in general complain more broadly about how money dominates elections and somehow corrupts the democratic process. But as columnist George Will is fond of pointing out, Americans spend as much each year on yogurt as is spent on political campaigns. Or Proctor and Gamble spends as much on advertising their products.
But let’s discuss the process issue and put it in its proper context
America’s Founders were quite clear that the purpose of government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of individuals from any party—especially government itself—that would violate those freedoms. The Constitution gave the federal government limited and enumerated powers to do its job but not open-ended authority to do whatever it liked. To prevent the federal government from developing into a tyranny that would endanger liberty, the Constitution set up a system of checks and balances, to slow government action and allow major policy changes only when there is a true consensus.
Further, the Constitution contains a Bill of Rights to make it as clear as possible what the government cannot do and to require due process in any case where government might restrict freedom.
And the Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights made clear that ours is a federal system, with power further divided: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Elections are the part of this process for choosing officials whose job it is to protect us rather than become our masters.
But a master the federal government has become. Over the past century expansions of the scope of government has reduced our liberties and eroded the ethos of independence and self-reliance on which any free society must be based. The Constitutional process of checking government has failed badly.
Today government at all levels consumes—that it to say, it controls—about 45 percent of GDP. Even as the American economy was losing millions of jobs due to a recession that was in large part the fault of the government, federal government employment jumped 10 percent. We also suffer under government regulations that regiment and control major aspects of our economic lives and our private lives as well.
The Constitutional process of checking government has failed badly.
In a free society individuals deal with one another based on mutual consent, producing and trading goods and services with one another. But political power more and more is the coin of the realm. Who gets what is more and more determined by who wields the whip of government. Thus many seek political influence to get handouts extracted from their neighbors through taxes or favors enforced by governments. That’s why H.L. Mencken said “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” Others seek political power simply to protect themselves from those who would use government against them.
Such a system by its nature ensures a political war of all against all, with elections always bitter and contentious.
So what does this say about campaign spending? If columnist David Brooks is right, such spending has little influence on elections in any case. “The main effect of this money is to make the rubble bounce.”
But those who are concerned about businesses or anyone else for that matter spending “too much” on political ads are not interested in getting to the root of the problem. They don’t want to radically reduce the size of government and thus the potential rewards of seizing control of it in elections. Rather, political elites want to protect this system that allows them to exercise power, to control our lives, to build in their morally-distorted minds their self-image as benevolent rulers taking care of we peasants.
Citizens who care about their liberty should not be distracted by those who claim there is too much money in politics and elections. Rather, they should focus on the fact that there is too much politics and government in our lives.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.