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Jewish World Review April 12, 2001 / 19 Nissan, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

"Campaign finance reform" follies -- TO crusaders for "campaign finance reform," as with many other political crusaders, the facts simply do not matter. What matters is their vision -- and winning. Facts can be left to others.

Most of the arguments for campaign finance reform cannot stand up to the facts. Take the notion that, without government regulation of campaign contributions, people with big money will simply "buy the election." What are the facts?

The long list of rich people who became political candidates and lost, despite spending big bucks out of their own pockets, goes back as far as William Randolph Hearst and comes forward to Ross Perot and Steve Forbes. When the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 1994, for the first time in 40 years, the average winning Republican candidate spent less than the Democrat he defeated. Then, four years later, when the Democrats staged a comeback and reduced the Republican majority, their spending averaged less than that of the Republicans.

What about the notion that the big money will always back conservative or pro-business candidates, giving one side of the political spectrum an unfair advantage at the polls? Big campaign money contributors have bankrolled political icons of the left from William Jennings Bryan to Bob LaFollette and Hiram Johnson in a bygone era to Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern in a later era. Hollywood millionaires were among Bill Clinton's biggest supporters and billionaire Ted Turner bankrolls left-wing causes.

What about the much-touted "quid pro quo" sought by "special interests"? Does this produce "the best politicians money can buy," as claimed by campaign finance crusaders? Here we run into a chicken and egg problem. Do contributors generally contribute to elected officials who already espouse positions they like or do the politicians take their positions in order to attract money?

Since there is money available on both sides of most issues, it is by no means an open and shut case that positions are generally taken just in order to attract money. A Congressman who votes in favor of drilling for oil in Alaska may get contributions from the oil industry but, if he voted to oppose oil drilling in Alaska, he could get money from the Sierra Club.

According to House minority leader Richard Gephardt: "What we have is two important values in direct conflict: freedom of speech and our desire for healthy campaigns in a healthy democracy." Whatever Congressman Gephardt's definition of a "healthy" campaign, it is not part of the Constitution of the United States -- and free speech is.

Across a whole spectrum of institutions, free speech is being stifled so that the politically correct vision of the left can prevail, as it does in our educational system from the kindergarten to the graduate schools. It is the same story in most of the media. When a homosexual is murdered by anti-gay hoodlums, that is big news from coast to coast, but when two homosexuals capture, rape and kill a teenage boy, that story seldom sees the light of day. Campaign finance restrictions reduce the chances of letting the public hear anything that has not been filtered through the liberal media and the liberal academic establishment.

What have been the actual consequences of previous campaign finance laws? A scholarly study of such laws -- "Unfree Speech" by Bradley A. Smith -- concludes that they affect the channels through which money reaches political campaigns, rather than the total amount of money.

Lots of innocent people have been caught in legal technicalities created by a tangle of red tape regulations, while the organized special interests continue to pour millions of dollars through the loopholes. Small groups of concerned citizens dare not enter the political campaign fray without lawyers to guide them through the legal maze created by existing campaign reform laws. In short, laws designed to reduce the influence of special interests scare off ordinary citizens, thereby enhancing the influence of special interests.

Campaign finance laws also enhance the power of incumbents, who have access to the media by virtue of their offices and have direct access to the public through the power of press releases and junkets paid for by the taxpayers. Unfortunately, it is only incumbents who can vote on campaign finance laws -- and they are obviously in favor of whatever increases their chances of keeping their jobs.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate