How to Achieve Real Campaign Finance Reform

By Edwin A. Locke

The U. S. House of Representative is again debating campaign finance reform legislation. The proximate cause of this debate being brought to the floor now is the Enron scandal, including the fact that the company gave large amounts of money to politicians from both major parties. The deeper cause is the increasing disgust the American people have come to feel about the unprincipled manner in which our legislative process is conducted. The process, in essence, is that swarms of lobbyists descend like locusts on Washington, demanding special favors in return for campaign contributions. It is claimed that the ultimate culprit in this mess is money (“wealthy special-interest groups”). This claim is false. “Moneyed interests” are only a symptom of a deeper cause. The corruption is caused not by material wealth but by spiritual poverty. It is caused by a bankrupt philosophical premise: the concept of the “public interest.”

Let us see how this premise operates in practice. Imagine that you are an honest, idealistic congressman just elected to office. On your first day, you are accosted by four lobbyists. The first demands a tariff increase on certain imports to “protect” his group’s industry–which, he claims, serves the public. The second lobbyist asserts that it will benefit the public if his group gets a subsidy to help its members survive in a “brutally competitive” market. The third insists that it will help the public if members of his group are given license to be the exclusive providers of a certain service. The fourth says the public will be better off if unions are made illegal in his industry. The next day, a new group of lobbyists asks you for favors. These requests often conflict with those demanded by the first group, but are just as fervently presented as being in the “public interest.”

How then do you decide what to do? If an auto-industry spokesman argues for import tariffs on cars to protect the jobs of hundreds of thousands of workers, and an auto-dealer association argues for no tariffs in order to give hundreds of thousands of buyers lower prices, which group, in this case, is the “public”? Both and neither. You realize that “the public” is not an actual entity but only a collection of individuals. So which individuals, in any given case, should get what they want and at whose expense? There is no way to tell–anyone can claim to be the public on any issue. In dismay you recognize that “the public interest” has no objective meaning. It is empty rhetoric.

Politics abhors a vacuum, and when there are no coherent moral principles to guide action, the void is filled by pressure-group warfare. The winner of any given battle is decided by such arbitrary factors as which group is bigger, richer, better connected (e.g., to the White House), or more attuned to the latest media hype or political tide. In practice, the principle of the “public interest” leads to a political war of all against all in which some individuals are sacrificed for the benefit of others. This mess is known as the “mixed” economy. (There are, of course, some principled lobbyists who seek, not special privileges, but simply the right to be left alone–but their pleas fall on unprincipled ears.)

All this leads to widespread cynicism and demands for “campaign finance reform”–but it cannot work. To think that you can eliminate the cause–philosophical bankruptcy–by limiting its effects–the buying and selling of favors–is to think that you can eradicate mental illness by limiting the number of beds in mental hospitals. Real campaign finance reform requires philosophical reform. We must discard the notion of the “public interest” and replace it with the proper principle: individual rights, which means the freedom of each individual to pursue his own interests as long as he does not coerce or defraud others. This means: replace the mixed economy with real capitalism–no tariffs, no subsidies, no protection from competition, no favors.

How would such a system work in practice? Consider the recent hoopla over steel imports. It is reported that Bush is being pressured by some 50 different groups to either pass or not pass legislation that would put tariffs on steel imports or to ban some imports altogether. Which side will win? No one knows; probably the side that makes the most noise or has the most votes. But all this begging of favors could be eliminated on the spot if Bush simply articulated one simple principle: what buyers and sellers of steel do is none of the government’s business and I will take no part in interfering with the free market. End of lobbying; end of favor-seeking. No lobbyists would bother to show up at the White House or in Congress because no one would have anything to sell.

Only when politicians have no power to offer other men’s property–and their own souls–for sale in the name of the “public interest” will we have true “campaign finance” reform.

Edwin A. Locke, Dean’s Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Motivation at the University of Maryland at College Park, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

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