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Jewish World Review March 16, 2000 / 9 Adar II, 5760

George Will

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Free to Be Politically Intense -- JOHN MCCAIN AND BILL BRADLEY made "campaign finance reform" the centerpiece of their campaigns. Their combined record before suspending their campaigns: seven wins, 39 losses--worse than the Los Angeles Clippers. Few McCain supporters said campaign reform determined their votes. Californians voted 65-35 against a campaign reform initiative McCain endorsed. Yet reform continues to be presented as something for which there is a mandate.

Fortunately, George Priest, professor of law and economics at Yale, has recast the argument about campaign finance in a way that reveals the extent to which standard campaign reform proposals threaten America's democratic vitality. In a recent paper delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, he offers what he calls an alternative to both the "reform" tradition that deplores the role of private money in politics, and the contrary approach that regards campaign spending and giving as expressive acts protected by the First Amendment. However, Priest's analysis--actually, a way of thinking about equality--buttresses the latter approach, the "First Amendment faction."

The "reform" tradition, he says, believes money corrupts by being inegalitarian because it affects public decisions and draws candidates' attention toward contributors' interests. But, says Priest, no one believes citizens can or should be equal in the political realm. Some have better ideas, are more persuasive or more respected. So Priest believes the reformers' focus on monetary inequality is an aesthetic recoil against money.

The First Amendment faction actually shares the reformers' ideal: each citizen expressing his or her political values as fully as is feasible. The reformers simply add a coda: as fully as is feasible without regard to money. The difference between the two camps is one of characterization: contributions corrupt vs. contributions express.

Priest's alternative analysis compares the electoral process to the process of a market, noting three structural differences. First, the electoral process necessarily imposes geographical restrictions on citizens' electoral expressions of their views: citizens vote within political jurisdictions (e.g., cities, districts, states). Second, elections, unlike markets, are periodic, so there cannot be continuous reregistering of citizens' views.

Third, and crucially, voters, unlike consumers in markets, are each given just one vote per election, equally weighted with all other votes. So political elections are less responsive than market workings to intensities of demand by participants. The logic of the reformers' notion of equality dictates public financing of campaigns--banning individual contributions so that all individuals will be equal. Priest objects.

Society's aim, he says, should be maximum feasible political vibrancy, which is defeated by constraints on the expression of intensity of political views. Given the one-person, one-vote rule in elections, citizen involvement in campaigns "becomes the central mechanism for registering intensity of political viewpoint."

The one-person, one-vote rule rightly affirms the moral equality of citizens in elections. But, Priest argues, it is wrong to suppress--to level--intensities of political views in the pre-election debate by limiting private contributions. "The political views and ideals of citizens are not distributed equally--nor should they be."

Campaign finance restrictions are equivalents of high tariffs on political views. Campaigns, Priest says, are exercises in mobilization, which depend on expenditures made possible by contributions. But under current restrictions on individual contributions, citizen participation must take the form of modest monetary contributions, or contributions of time. Which is why so many campaign workers are students and others without full-time jobs.

Democracy, says Priest, is debilitated by campaign finance limits that restrict politically intense citizens to participating with low-grade labor. Priest actually is a fellow-traveler of the First Amendment faction. But instead of just characterizing political money as speech, he shows how it is related to speech. And he makes the First Amendment faction's argument into one not about individual rights but about a desirable social outcome.

Limits on campaign contributions are optional aggravations of the necessary limits imposed on the political "market" by the one-person, one-vote rule, periodic elections and geographic limitations on the franchise. Campaign contributions ameliorate these "imperfections" in the political market. And, Priest notes, contributions or promises of contributions "can increase the likelihood that a candidate will honor his or her election promises, just as a bond enforces performance of a commercial contract."

The reformers' restrictions on contributions to candidates stimulate soft money (given to parties or other causes), which reformers detest because it is unrestricted. But, Priest says, soft money enables citizens to support principles of greater generality than any single politician's views, and allows citizens to delegate to political professionals the use of their money, "much like a contribution to the United Way." Count the ways campaign "reform" is inimical to democratic values.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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