Editor's Note: With hotly contested November elections around the corner, debates and vague accusations linked to the notion of the corrupting nature of money in politics have come to the fore again.
In 2001 David Kelley exposed the philosophical confusion inherent in similar complaints by political leaders who, at that time, were supporting the McCain-Feingold Bill (formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002). This classic article provides much-needed context and insight into these perennial issues.
April 2001 -- Political reformers have long dreamed of driving money from the temple of democracy. They argue that campaign contributions from wealthy individuals and interest groups buy influence--government subsidies, relief from burdensome regulations, and special-interest amendments to legislation--in violation of the principle of "one-man, one-vote." Money also pays for abrasive "issue ads" during election season, poisoning the town-meeting atmosphere of rational discussion that democratic idealists dream of.
Such dreams are illusory and full of self-contradiction.
The current restrictions on contributions were imposed in the 1970s in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. They have not staunched the flow of funds nor the din of political advertising, and reformers are itching to try again. This time, the politicians themselves are leading the charge, loudly lamenting the time they must spend soliciting contributions for their next campaign.
"The incessant money chase that currently permeates every crevice of our political system . . . sends a clear message to the people that it is money-money-money, not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics," said Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat-West Virginia), a politician not otherwise known for his devotion to ideas and principles.
"This week, I go Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday raising money," whined Sen. Tom Harkin (Democrat-Iowa). "It's awful. It's crazy. It's nuts."
But the prize for most egregious display of self-pity by a politician goes to Russell Feingold (Democrat-Wisconsin), co-author of legislation that recently passed in the Senate, who offered this battle cry: "I say free the Congressional 535 from this tyranny of having to raise this money."
As one might expect from such self-serving arguments, the McCain-Feingold bill is an exercise in hypocrisy. The argument that legislators are distracted from doing their jobs by the pressure to raise money applies only to incumbents. No one has yet been heard lamenting the time that would-be challengers must take from their jobs in the real world in order to fund their campaigns.
Indeed, as critics have been pointing out for decades, the chief effect of restricting political contributions is to heighten the advantages of incumbents, who now typically receive three times as much in contributions as challengers. And that's on top of the salaries and office expenses that allow incumbents to campaign throughout their terms, as well as the franking privilege that pays all the postage on mass mailings. They also enjoy free press coverage that challengers can overcome only by costly advertising.
The chief effect of restricting political contributions is to heighten the advantages of incumbents.
No wonder that over 90 percent of incumbents have lately been winning elections. McCain-Feingold is another step in the same direction. It bans "soft money," the previously unrestricted contributions to the political parties for voter drives, advertising, and other activities. The parties typically spend heavily in close races, whether their candidate in an incumbent or a challenger. By contrast, the "hard money" that goes directly to individual candidates, subject to contribution limits, overwhelmingly supports incumbents. "In general," notes John Samples of the Cato Institute, "banning soft money would tip the scales toward incumbents."
The final, and most dangerous, hypocrisy is the bill's provision to ban labor unions, corporations, and other groups, during the sixty days prior to an election, from running independent issue ads intended to support a candidate--a gross violation of the free speech that is essential to genuine democracy. It is precisely in the final days of a campaign, when many voters are making up their minds and candidates need to respond quickly to the claims of their opponents, that freedom of speech has the greatest political importance. That our government is trying to control speech during the very process by which voters exert their democratic control sets an ominous precedent.
This is not to deny the reality of corruption in our democracy. Even in a better age, it was said that legislation and sausage were the two things one should never watch being made. Today, the sausage produced in Congress is mostly pork and it's slick from the well-greased palms that shape it. But the source of corruption isn't money, and none of the reforms being debated will affect it. The source is a corruption of the democratic ideal itself.
There are two rival conceptions of democracy in political thought, one individualist, one collectivist.
John Locke was the most influential proponent of the individualist theory, and his argument was summarized eloquently in The Declaration of Independence: People have a natural right to live their lives, enjoy their liberty, acquire property, and pursue happiness--as individuals. They need government to perform the limited function of protecting their rights and settling disputes.
In the nature of the case, there can be only one government in a given society. Since it must serve as a common agent for all citizens, they are all entitled to participate in deciding how their agent will function. To put it bluntly: People cannot choose another agent to protect their rights, so they should have some say over the one they're stuck with. There is no basis for excluding anyone from the process, or giving one person's vote more weight than another's, because everyone has the same rights at stake.
For individualists like Locke and Jefferson, democracy is a method of making political decisions, a way of deciding how the business of government will be conducted. It is not a method for deciding what the business of government should be in the first place. That question is settled objectively, by the reality of individual rights and the objective need for laws, courts, police, and other institutions to protect those rights. Thus the ends of government are not up for vote. No group, not even a majority, has any right to more expansive government services at the cost of the rights of others.
The adulteration of individualist principles by collectivist ones is the fundamental corruption in our democracy.
Collectivist theories of democracy take their cue from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that government is an agent not of individuals as such but of the community as a collective entity. People cede all their rights to this entity; as Rousseau put it, "each of us contributes to the group his person and the powers which he wields as a person." We must sacrifice our individual interest to the common good, and submit our individual wills to "the General Will." If people are left free to pursue their private interests, he said, their different talents will bring them different degrees of wealth, power, and esteem--inequalities that which Rousseau and his collectivist heirs hate with a passion.
In exchange for giving up our private lives, we have equal rights to participate as citizens in forming the general will, deciding what the common good requires, and thus giving government its assignment. Collectivists always insist that the sovereign power of the community cannot be restricted to protecting individual rights, or indeed to any limited end whatever.
Thus we have two utterly different views of democracy. For individualists, democracy is the servant of liberty, and is concerned only with the means of governing. For collectivists, democracy is the servant of equality, and allows people to vote on the ends of government as well as the means. For individualists, majority rule is merely a device for counting individual votes; "the will of the people" is a short-hand description for the outcome of a vote. Collectivists take the phrase literally: The people are a collective entity with its own will.
What exists today in America and other free nations is a system shaped by both conceptions. On the one hand, as Roger Donway points out in "Lands of Liberty," we still enjoy many of the fruits of individualism, such as fair elections, an independent judiciary, and a fair degree of individual liberty. On the other hand, we are taxed and regulated to an extent that would have shocked the Founders, and very few areas of life remain in principle beyond the reach of the state. When the voters clamor for prescription drugs, higher SAT scores, cheaper electric power, or any other good, no politician has the conviction, much less the courage, to say "That's not the business of government."
The adulteration of individualist principles by collectivist ones is the fundamental corruption in our democracy, the underlying cause of all the other, more concrete and visible problems.
Our government no longer represents individuals as individuals; its real constituents are interest groups.
Why are political campaigns becoming more and more costly? The answer to that question lies in another: Why would anyone voluntarily give his hard-earned money to a politician? The obvious answer is that as government grows, as it wields more power to impose harms or grant favors, people are willing to invest more of their resources in the struggle for control of that power, both to protect themselves and to get benefits that they cannot achieve by voluntary means. Campaign contributions have grown in rough proportion to the size of the government's budget, and will continue to do so until the incentive for contributing is reduced. Limits on "soft money," political advertising, and so forth, will merely send the flow of money into different channels.
How can we curb the influence of special interests? We can't, and we shouldn't. The government creates special interests by subsidizing agriculture, the arts, education, energy, hospitals, playgrounds, and a thousand other goods; by redistributing billions of dollars among its citizens each year; and by regulating everything from the price of sugar to the size of toilet tanks. Indeed, our government no longer represents individuals as individuals; its real constituents are interest groups. Voters as individuals cannot possibly control nor seek redress of their grievances from a government whose every action rewards or penalizes them as members of groups. Pressure groups are the only form that democracy can take in the age of the mixed economy and the welfare state.
Isn't this corruption? The problem is that no one can tell. Despite the heated claims by partisans that some congressman's vote for this or that piece of legislation was obviously "bought" by money from special interests, many scholars have shown that legislators are more influenced by ideology, personal conviction, party membership, and surveys of the voters' opinions.
But there is a deeper reason why corruption cannot be traced within our system, except in its grossest forms. Corruption is the use of public resources for private ends. From the individualist perspective of the Founders, a clear line can be drawn between public and private interests. The public interest is to maintain the institutions of law and defense that allow people to pursue their private ends. Thus when the Bill of Rights asserts that "private property [may not] be taken for public use without just compensation," the term "public use" refers to the needs of the military, the court, and a few other things like roads and canals that the eighteenth century regarded as public goods.
Today, under the influence of collectivism, the public interest consists in anything the public wants government to do. The courts have held, for example, that the "public" uses for which property can be taken include not just roads or court buildings but also parks, golf courses, and corporate factories. The line between public and private realms is not fixed over time, nor even determinate at a given time. The result is indeed, as reformers say, that a vague odor of corruption pervades the system. But the reason is the absence of any criterion for defining corruption in the concrete.
A legislator's vote to subsidize farmers can equally well be seen as a quid pro quo to farm-bloc contributions or as a noble attempt to protect a traditional way of life. It might equally well be seen as an abject surrender to political pressures or as the sensitive response of a statesman to the wishes of his constituents. As Ayn Rand noted in a commentary on the mixed economy, "it is not a matter of personalities, nor of anyone's honesty or dishonesty. The corruption is inherent in the system: it is inherent in any system in which men have to act without any goals, principles, or standards to guide them."
Electoral reform, when it is not merely a device for incumbents to protect their hold on office, appeals to people who like government but hate politics. But they can't have it both ways. Their image of democracy is the town meeting, as in Norman Rockwell's famous painting Freedom of Speech (pictured above), where stalwart citizens speak their minds and vote their consciences. That is an honorable ideal, but only when the issues for discussion are delimited and the rights of the citizens are secure. When those individualist conditions are abandoned, when we are asked to throw our "persons and our powers"--our wealth, abilities, careers, health, and even our children--into a common pot for the group to allocate, the result is not a civil town meeting but an ugly free-for-all.
This article first appeared in the April 2001 print edition of Navigator magazine, the Atlas Society's precursor to The New Individualist.
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses, and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society.
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