The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform

By John Samples | Go to book overview

Preface

The struggle to restrict money's influence in politics and thereby freedom of speech grows from a story of sin and redemption. A democratic government should obey the will of the people, but wealthy and powerful special interests corrupt public officials by offering campaign contributions in exchange for policy favors. Democracy is redeemed by public-spirited reformers who selflessly and heroically battle the special interests to enact laws that restrict and eventually prohibit private financing of political activity. Being a story of sin and redemption, this dominant narrative is emotionally satisfying: it lays out heroes, villains, and a happy ending. The power of this story should not be underestimated. It has contributed to the passage of laws and advanced the presidential ambitions of a prominent senator. But the satisfactions it offers do not make it true. We still should ask whether anyone sins all that much and whether the redemption on offer is likely to improve our world or agree with American political ideals. In the pages that follow, I argue that the reformer's story contravenes both the facts as we know them and the ideals that informed the founding of our republic. Not least of those ideals is the command that Congress make no law abridging freedom of speech.

I begin also to tell a different story about money, politics, and elections. In part, my story belongs to the genre of political realism. For all the talk of sin, redemption, and democracy, I see restrictions on money in politics as ways to advance the interests of those who propose such laws and regulations. In part, the aspirations of the partisans of restrictions are ideological: they see limitation of campaign finance as a necessary step toward equalizing political influence, which itself is a means to equalizing wealth. Beyond that fantasy lies a harder reality: campaign finance laws tend to advance the interests of those who write them, namely, incumbent legisla-

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