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Jewish World Review March 31, 2000 /24 Adar II, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Campaign finance hypocrisy -- IN MANY COUNTRIES around the world, for centuries on end, those with wealth have had to pay tribute to those with power. Yet today, when the same thing happens in our own country, the press stands the situation on its head and demands "campaign finance reform," so that those with wealth will not corrupt those with power by bribing them for special favors.

Some businesses and industries do get special privileges in exchange for the money they contribute to politicians' campaign coffers. But the very possibility that other businesses and industries are simply paying protection money is something that never appears on the radar screen in much of the media. Yet even the most casual knowledge of the history of government regulation of business over the past few decades shows a growing intrusion of government into every aspect of business, from hiring and firing to ever-expanding jungles of regulations, paperwork and red tape.

If "big money" is controlling government, then it is using that control in a very strange way, to erode and destroy its own ability to manage its own businesses. Not bloody likely. The assumptions behind campaign finance reform are shaky, at best.

The media may love it when Senator John McCain says that he and his colleagues are corrupted by special-interest money, but it would be closer to the truth to say that Senator McCain and others use their power to collect extortion money for their campaigns from those subject to that power.

If Senator McCain were to leave the Republican party and run for president on a third-party (or fourth party) ticket, he would lose his committee chairmanship and with it the money that he can extort from businesses and industries vulnerable to legislation he can influence as a chairman. This is a much less pretty picture than his admirers like to contemplate.

Just what is it that campaign finance reform is supposed to accomplish? And what is it in fact likely to accomplish?

The most predictable effect of restrictions on campaign contributions is to make it harder for incumbents to be challenged for re-election. Millions of dollars' worth of publicity that is necessary to run for national office is provided free of charge to incumbents by the taxpayers and by the media. Free mailing privileges, free travel, and a staff of government employees generate a constant stream of publicity for incumbents, during both election years and non-election years. Their positions of power guarantee media coverage, also free. And for those politicians who promote the welfare state, much of that coverage by the predominantly liberal media is virtually guaranteed to be favorable.

Anyone outside the charmed circle of incumbents needs far more money than the incumbents to overcome these huge built-in advantages for those in power. And if the potential challenger does not share the views of the liberal media, then still more money will be needed to counter the adverse reception his ideas are sure to get from the intelligentsia.

In short, so-called campaign finance reform biases the whole political process in favor of incumbents in general and liberal incumbents in particular. That bias is accentuated by legislation like the McCain-Feingold bill, which exempts labor unions from the stringent controls put on others.

Not only do labor unions contribute millions of dollars to political campaigns, they can also field armies of precinct workers on election night, also free of charge to the politicians they support.

How does any of this make the political process more even-handed or make the public better served or better informed? On the contrary, it makes it less likely that the public will hear much beyond what the liberal media chooses to tell them.

Free speech and the marketplace of ideas is at the heart of democracy.

Restrictions on what can be spent to counter the millions of dollars' worth of free publicity enjoyed by incumbents is a travesty, and calling it "reform" is an insult to our intelligence.

Senator McCain's promotion of campaign finance reform serves Senator McCain. It has made him the darling of the media and gave him whatever chance he once had to become a presidential candidate. But what it will do for this country is make the Washington establishment more firmly entrenched and more prone to bigger government programs and heavier government regulation. Some "reform"!

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate