Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2002 / 3 Adar, 5762

Thomas Sowell

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Political peddling and soap

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- THE Enron scandal was welcomed like an unexpected Christmas present by Democrats who, together with much of the media, have tried to tie the scandal to the Bush administration. However, as more and more information has come out about Enron, it has become clear that this company contributed money to Democrats and Republicans alike, to both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Moreover, when Enron got into big trouble, the only person who tried to get the government to help it out was a former member of the Clinton administration, who phoned a high official of the Bush administration -- who refused to do anything. If Enron thought that all the money it was spreading around among politicians was going to produce results when the chips were down, it was sadly mistaken. If anything, their experience corroborated what Harry Truman said long ago: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Like the man who said that everything reminded him of sex, for some people in politics and the media everything reminds them of a need for campaign finance reform. The Enron scandal is no exception and is now being used to show why it is urgent to restrict campaign contributions.

The main argument for campaign finance reform is that money contributed to politicians corrupts the laws and policies they vote for. However, the things proposed under that rationale include restricting some kinds of political activity used by some interest groups but not other kinds of political activity used by other interest groups.

What would be the consequence of selectively reducing the ability of some segments of American society to promote their views as to what the government should and should not do?

Obviously it shifts the balance toward those who are allowed to continue to promote their own views on the issues of the day. Above all, restrictions on what others can say and do helps incumbents.

Elected officials can generate all sorts of self-serving publicity by their pronouncements, legislation, hearings, and a variety of activities that are reported as "news," even though they are basically advertising. None of that would be banned by campaign finance reform.

What is piously called "campaign finance reform" could more accurately be called the incumbents' protection act. One of the earliest uses of federal restrictions on political advertising -- the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 -- was a 1972 federal attempt to get a court injunction against a group of people who advertised for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

Do we really want to allow bureaucrats and politicians to be able to harass citizens for expressing political opinions? Or create such a snarl of red tape about contributing money to candidates or causes as to make people reluctant to participate in political activity, for fear of being dragged into federal court over a form that wasn't filled out right?

Who else gains from campaign finance reform besides incumbents? The mass media. Their political biases gain more influence by the silencing of those who could otherwise counter what they say with differing viewpoints. No one is more in favor of campaign finance reform than the media.

What problems are the campaign finance reform zealots trying to solve that are half as bad as the problems they are creating? There is lots of rhetoric but much of it will not stand up under scrutiny.

"There is too much money in politics!" is one frequent question-begging assertion. Too much compared to what? Procter & Gamble has spent as much money advertising soap and other products as all the candidates for Congress in both parties put together spent the same year. More money was spent advertising re-runs of "Seinfeld" than was spent by both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in 1996.

"Money can buy elections!" is another equally shrill cry. But innumerable wealthy candidates -- from William Randolph Hearst in the past to Steve Forbes more recently -- have repeatedly gone down to defeat, despite greatly outspending their opponents.

As the Supreme Court said many years ago, "the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voices of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment." Or does the First Amendment matter any more?

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.

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