Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Common Cause Puts Incumbents First

To Aimee Tavares (

You wrote to me about the Common Cause "Voters First" Pledge:

) our coalition will be reaching out to nearly 3 million Americans to tell them about the website, how to find out if their candidates have signed, and engage them in the campaign for Clean Elections—or publicly financed elections. (

I will not sign your "Voters First" Pledge, since it's really just an "Incumbents First" Pledge. I urge all my fellow candidates to tell you the same thing.

"Publicly financed elections" aren't clean, they're dirty. They're dirty because they force taxpayers belonging to minor parties to subsidize the political campaigns of the two incumbent parties. The "corruption" that you claim to oppose is caused entirely members of the two incumbent parties, so it's bizarre for you to believe that defending the incumbent parties from competition will decrease corruption. The Connecticut public financing law that you tout is so biased toward the incumbent parties that it is being challenged in a federal lawsuit by the ACLU, which ordinarily supports public campaign financing.

If you restrict the use of monetary resources for political speech, you merely amplify the power of other resources, e.g. celebrity, incumbency, media ownership/control, ability to organize and bundle the resources of volunteers (e.g. benefit concerts), etc. If you limit how much of my money I can spend on my speech, shouldn't you limit how much of Barbara Streisand's fame she can spend on her speech?

Speech restrictions are profoundly undemocratic, and don't even have the effect their advocates claim to desire. Retiring politicians don't suddenly change their voting patterns when freed from the need to seek campaign financing. The myth is that the politicians adapt their positions to chase the money. The reality is that the money is there because of the government benefits (or potential restrictions) that are up for grabs, and each interest group just pays whichever side is its natural ally on the issue.

The overwhelming majority of political corruption has nothing to do with the "gifts and travel" that you worry about in your Pledge. If corrupt congressmen merely sought personal wealth, then we could let them each take $1M/year from the Treasury and it wouldn't noticeably affect the federal budget. The much more costly corruption is caused by congressmen who buy votes with government payoffs and subsidies and special rules for farmers, seniors, teachers, civil servants, union members, lawyers, doctors, exporters, real estate developers, intellectual property owners, etc.

The Cato Institute explained in this 2004 article exactly why Big Government inexorably will lead to Big Lobbying:

Cato) There is solid empirical evidence that expanding government results in increases in campaign spending. Economist John Lott Jr. found that 87 percent of the rise in federal campaign spending between 1976 and 1994 was attributable to the $1,101 per-capita rise (in real terms) in federal government spending that occurred over that time.

We will only reduce the amount of money flowing within the tributaries of our political system by reducing the incentive for private interests to directly and indirectly support candidates and parties. Therefore, the only plausible solution is to limit the size of government. Anything else merely treats the symptom without addressing the underlying disease of the body politic. Lower government spending will lead to lower levels of campaign contributions. In turn, that will result in lower levels of campaign spending. All other efforts to limit campaign spending will be futile. (Cato

Instead of trying to impose on every candidate a one-size-fits-all muzzle, why not instead impose on every voter a requirement to listen? I'd like to hear just one campaign finance reformer have the courage to blame the people who by the reformer's logic must ultimately be at fault: the voters. If you think voters are wise and competent consumers of political speech, then surely political speech needs no regulation.

If instead you think voters are too selfish, then you should advocate no representation without taxation. We could say that if both last year and in your lifetime you've received more in dollar-denominated government benefits/credits/deductions than you've paid in taxes, then you don't get to vote.

If instead you think voters are too ignorant, then you should test voters before they can vote. We could say you can't vote for me unless you can answer one multiple-choice question about my positions from each of my opponents. The idea would be that you can't vote for X unless you can prove that you've listened to the arguments against X.

I personally am not yet ready to declare that voters are irredeemably selfish or ignorant. I just wish process-oriented reformers would hold a mirror up to the electorate itself, instead of complaining about the things that influence the electorate.

Aimee, if you really believe in a level playing field, where voters hear both sides speaking at the same volume, then there's only one way for you not to be a hypocrite when you have your Voters First press conference on Tuesday. You will allow as much time at your event for opposition to your Pledge as you allow for promotion of it.

So how about it, Aimee? Are you willing to practice what you preach? If so, I'm available to attend your event via voice conference and let your audience hear the other side of this issue. Don't you think that your proposal can win support over the alternative if you have to advocate it under the rules you want candidates to live by? Or is your proposal just a naked power grab, trying to shift power from elected officials to unelected organizations like your own that already have their own big megaphone?

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