Campaign Finance Laws: Ineffectual and Problematic
by Ari Armstrong
Armstrong replies to Maysmith's defense of the 1996 campaign finance laws.
In responding to Maysmith's piece, I'll pose five questions. Maysmith provides inadequate answers to all five.
Do the campaign finance reforms work?
Maysmith characterizes the reform laws as "extremely effective," but he doesn't offer any hard evidence to support this claim. He claims that more people gave money, but does this matter, even if true? By and large, campaigns were bought by the same small group of people who always buy them. Even if candidates spoke with more people, a contention I doubt Maysmith can support, we all know that candidates are pretty good at telling people what they want to hear without actually changing any policies.
Do people stay away from the voting booth because of big money, as Maysmith suggests? Hardly. As I noted, many refuse to vote on ethical grounds. Others do not vote because the vote of an individual is insignificant. Maysmith cites this fact, but he doesn't explain how the campaign reforms will help to change it. Because they can't. If Maysmith is correct, we should see a surge in voter turnout in 2000 relative to 1996. I predict that the percentage of eligible people who vote will stay about the same (or perhaps drop due to the Clinton fiasco).
I am not convinced that the reform laws have made any difference. The reforms might make it more difficult for some special interests, but they make it easier for others, and they do not alter the fundamental power structure. Any difference they may have made has been trivial. The finance laws are like putting a band-aid on a severed limb. Or, to use another analogy, I can imagine Maysmith standing on the ground in the initial torrents of Noah's Flood, holding an umbrella over his head and exclaiming with glee, "Look! I'm staying partly dry!"
Even if Maysmith can support the claim that the reform laws have limited the power of special interest groups, we must still weigh the possible benefits of the laws against the damage they do. Because the reform laws add new problems on top of the ones they seek to resolve, they should be rejected.
Are Colorado's campaign finance laws subjective?
Maysmith claims that the Schoettler example is clear-cut. However, the Democrats vehemently deny that the T-shirts were "dropped off," as Maysmith maintains. I grant that some cases may be clear-cut, but add that many cases will not be, because the law invites subjective interpretation. And let us not forget that those who decide the matter are political appointees and officials elected from a particular party.
Do the campaign finance laws hurt third parties?
I still maintain that the reform laws will hurt at least the Libertarian Party, because it has a small number of potential contributors. Maysmith notes that both the Green Party and Ross Perot support finance reforms. Well, if Perot is for it, who could be against it? Obviously, the Greens often want to run roughshod over the property rights of others, and so want to limit the ability of others to defend themselves politically. Both these examples provide strong reasons for NOT limiting campaign contributions.
Are the campaign finance laws just?
I am aware that issues of fairness generally are invisible to the eyes of the policy wonks. However, as I argue in my article, it is wrong to forcibly prevent someone from spending money in self-defense, including in the political arena.
Is the case for campaign finance laws contradictory?
Maysmith closes by saying the voters passed the campaign finance limits in 1996 because they realized "elections are unfairly bought." But he doesn't address the paradox I discussed. The whole case for campaign finance rests upon the notion that voters are too dumb to vote against politicians who have been bought by special interests. Where does this money go, after all? It goes to pay for expensive, glossy TV and radio ads that sway voters. If the voters were smart enough to see past this propaganda, there would be no need to limit the contributions. But, the reformers imply, the voters are dumb. Then how did they suddenly become smart enough to understand the intricacies of the campaign finance legislation? The case for campaign reform is fundamentally flawed.
Further, this flagrant contradiction in the reformers' case suggests that theories of democracy are frequently based on myth. Why do voters elect politicians the reformers don't like? Because they're too dumb to do otherwise. Why did they pass Amendment 15? Because they're brilliant! Groups which act to buttress the State often attribute motives and characteristics to voters which are convenient to the politics of the moment.
I offered a much more realistic picture of voting behavior in my article. First, I noted that Amendment 15 passed with less than 30% of the potential vote. Maysmith calls my reference to this fact "disingenuous" (though I got my figures from the League of Women Voters, for pete's sake), but if anything I overstated the numbers who voted for Amendment 15, as many who are eligible to vote aren't even counted in the statistics.
What's disingenuous is to treat the 57% (or more) of the population who chose not to vote as if they don't matter, as if they are only a "frustration" to the Statist elite, as Maysmith calls them. This is nothing but hubris.
Even when we look to those who voted for Amendment 15, many did not really believe it would improve the system. Some were simply too poorly informed to understand it at all. To this extent, one of the assumptions of the campaign reformers is partly true. Some voted for it purely out of cynicism, to say in effect, to hades with the politicians as a whole. Others who voted for it merely wanted to eliminate the special interest groups they don't like so that the special interest groups they do like can gain more power. The existence of this group hardly proves that the campaign laws are a good idea; quite the opposite.
Maysmith objects to my suggestion that those who support campaign finance reform are "welfare-liberal." For the record, I never referred to Common Cause as "welfare-liberal." Instead, I noted that supporters of campaign finance reforms in general tend to fall in that group. Common Cause is concerned with government finance and special interests, not with pushing welfare programs. Indeed, Common Cause does a lot of work that libertarians can support. On its national web page, the organization trounces "corporate welfare" and Bill Clinton's lousy idea of making the Federal government a major stock holder as a way of reforming Social(ized) (In)Security.
However, by fixating on campaign finance and ignoring substantial political reform, Common Cause in effect does support the status quo. So far as the group's members are concerned, I challenge Maysmith to run a questionnaire past everyone in Common Cause, consisting of three questions: 1) Do you believe Federal welfare programs should be abolished? 2) Do you believe Social Security should be abolished? 3) Do you believe government funding for schools should be abolished? I don't expect that Maysmith can find a single person in Common Cause to answer "yes" to any of these questions. Hence, yes, they are welfare-liberals. (I'm not name-calling, as Maysmith seems to think; I'm using the term in a technical way. I can hardly help it if welfare-liberals are less proud of their political philosophy than I am of being a "libertarian.")
I appreciate Maysmith's attempt to take power out of the hands of the special interest groups and put it back into the hands of individuals. Unfortunately, his proposed solution is problematic in itself and wholly inadequate. If we want to talk about real campaign reform, we must turn to libertarian theory.