Time for common sense again

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: Nov 09, 2000 12:00 AM

Now that the election is over, can we talk sense?

"Campaign finance reform" is a great political issue for an election year, but it makes no sense otherwise.

What is a campaign supposed to do -- and how will campaign finance reform affect how well it does it? A campaign is supposed to inform the public about the issues and about the opposing candidates' positions on those issues, as well as the candidates' own records. Obviously, the campaigns themselves are just one of the sources of such information. The mass media are a major source for many, if not most, people.

Polls have shown, again and again, that nearly 9 out of 10 media people vote for the Democrats' candidates for president. So this is not a source from which the public is likely to hear both sides of an issue presented even-handedly. On some issues, such as partial-birth abortion, the mainstream media seem determined that the public will never even know what it is. The very phrase is not used in much of the media, and such newspapers as the New York Times and USA Today have refused to accept advertisements which simply describe what it is. And photographs are out of the question.

"The public's right to know," which the media invoke so piously in defense of their own intrusive activities, apparently does not mean a right to know what the media do not want them to know.

Another major source of political propaganda, though not labeled as such, is the government itself. Government agencies are always trying to drum up more business for themselves with publications and TV ads saying what wonderful things they are doing and what wonderful new things they could do, if only they had more money and more sweeping powers.

In addition to such direct propaganda, government agencies finance vast amounts of research, including research on controversial subjects like global warming. When the administration is pushing for all sorts of new controls and new programs, in the name of preventing global warming, do you think that they are equally likely to finance those scientists who say that global warming is bunk?

Given the massive amounts of government spending on research, and the fact that the agencies which hand out this money have a large vested interest in the outcomes, you are far more likely to hear that "studies prove" whatever will contribute to these agencies' money and power than you are likely to hear about studies that indicate the opposite.

The people who do these studies are not necessarily dishonest. Many or most may be sincerely convinced of what they are saying. But there are other people, equally sincere and equally qualified, who reach opposite conclusions that you are far less likely to hear about, because they are far less likely to get the financial backing to do expensive research. The big private foundations, which might provide an alternative source of funding, are at least as heavily skewed to the left as the media.

Put together the research bias and the media bias, and you get huge coverage for studies which "prove" what the media want to believe or which "refute" previous studies showing what the media did not want to believe. Thus a 14-page RAND Corporation report undermining what Governor Bush had said about the educational advances of minority students in Texas received great media coverage on the eve of the election, while a much more thorough 250-page study from the same RAND Corporation that supported the fact that black students in Texas were advancing more rapidly in math than in any other state was largely ignored.

Campaign reform advocates who speak ominously of "the corrupting influence of money in politics" always seem to mean private money from "special interests" -- with government agencies never being included among these special interests. But money is valuable only for what it can buy. Vast amounts of resources made available free of charge have the same effect -- and are not covered by campaign finance reform.

Labor unions in general, and the teachers' unions in particular, supply large numbers of precinct workers to get out the votes for Democrats on election day. Politically biased media coverage is another vast contribution to liberal-left politics, and campaign finance reformers haven't the slightest interest in making the media more balanced. To the extent that they succeed, the public will have less access to both sides of issues.

What is most corrupting, as campaign finance reformers see it, are political contributions from private businesses. But most big businesses contribute to both the Democrats and the Republicans. Much of this is protection money, to stay on the good side of whoever wins the election and thereby acquires the power to harass them with bureaucrats, red tape and lawsuits. But campaign finance reformers constantly depict it as bribes to win special favors.

Some businesses do win special favors. But businesses as a whole are losing more and more rights to run their own businesses, while government agencies are increasingly telling them who they can hire, what they have to pay and a thousand other details that were once considered none of the government's business. If business contributions are primarily bribes, they are certainly not getting what they paid for. But protection money is paid to try to keep things from getting much worse.

In the media, much was made of the many millions of dollars in campaign contributions received by George W. Bush. What was seldom reported was that the bulk of those millions came in small contributions from people too numerous to even have their names remembered, much less wield any influence over his decisions. Giving fifty or a hundred bucks is unlikely to get you a government contract or an appointment as ambassador.

To the extent that campaign finance reformers succeed in putting limits on how much each individual or organization can contribute, elected officials will have to spend more of their time raising money and correspondingly less of their time doing the jobs they were elected to do. If the limit is $1,000 instead of $5,000, then it is going to take five times as much fund-raising to get the same amount of money. Yet campaign finance reform, like so many other political issues, is not about consequences but about what sounds good and feels good.

Let's go back to square one. What is a political campaign supposed to do? Inform the public? The more restrictions put on campaign financing -- especially omitting government agencies, labor unions and the media -- the less chance the public is going to have to hear both sides of issues. Given the huge amount of free publicity available to incumbents, campaign finance reform laws are virtually re-election guarantees -- which also guarantees that there will be less reform where it is most needed, inside the Washington Beltway.