Politics without money

Posted: May 28, 2006 12:05 AM

If everybody says it, it must be true, right?

Money in politics is bad. Capital-B, Capital-A, Capital-D, BAD!

The judgment can be stated above the level of a high-school cheer, of course. Here's Common Cause's summary:

The dominating influence of wealthy special interests in the funding of campaigns has eroded public trust in our political system and discouraged political participation. In a system that gives undue access to lawmakers and influence on legislation to those who contribute large amounts to campaigns, most citizens believe their voice is not being heard.

Why, to begin with, is there money in politics?

Two reasons: we have something like a democracy, and our government meddles in nearly everything.

So what to do?

We could just limit the purview of government, and the money issue would peter out — after all, "paying Paul" would no longer be policy. If we brought back constitutional limits, and added some new ones, then there'd be scant incentive to invest in politicians to . . . do things they really shouldn't be doing anyway.

But a lot of people want anything but the Constitution, so that idea gets nixed. Politicians like the power that comes from spending gobs of other people's money, and many interest groups as well as citizens welcome being bought.

That's why politicians tend to prefer their own solution: socialized elections.

They refer to it as "publicly funded elections," though it would be more accurate to use such phrases as "government-funded" or "taxpayer-funded." They call it "clean money," as if taking money from taxpayers and doling it out to certain politicians is next to godliness. But whatever you call it, the idea is clear: make everybody pay for the campaigns of certain approved candidates. All for one, one for all — except that in practice it means, "all for a few, a few for themselves."

It could work, sorta. Socialism can't run a whole consumer-oriented economy (can you say "stagnation"? can you mind your queues?), but socialism can run certain things, like a singular government enterprise. Making everybody pay for one project, and having that project run according to strict rules, or the agreed goals of a few people . . . hey, it might work. Armies run along non-market lines. Why can't we run an election like we run an army?

Well, even politicians have a common interest in winning wars, as do all citizens. As for winning elections, there are a myriad of fiercely competing interests. Because some in the public understand this dynamic, politicians will no doubt argue that money would have to be even more tightly controlled. Some bureau, or agency, or both (or a dozen) would have to set up finding for each election, and the only money that could be spent on that election would be the money disbursed by the government with regulations predetermined by incumbent politicians.


And here's an even simpler system: If you really want to take money out of politics, just stop holding elections. Period. If there were no elections, there'd be no money in politics, other than the paying of representatives. Each current representative could appoint his or her successor, and you could regulate the politicians' financial concerns all you (or they) like . . . and that way money would no longer be a problem.

You see, the easiest way to take money out of politics is to take democracy out of politics.

In a democracy, people need ways to influence other people, and spending money advertising each case is one of those ways. It's integral. If "money and politics" were your only concern, then taking the democracy out of the representational system would work just dandy.

And after all, it's not as if the regulatory/redistributionist state (the "welfare state") requires democracy. It's a very old idea. You could say it was invented, in ancient times, by the Roman Empire, with its bread and circuses. A socialized retirement system was invented, in modern times, by Otto von Bismarck. It's easier to direct without hordes of interests "having a lawful say."

So, if you really want "money out of politics," you have two choices: Take politics out of money, by limiting government power to meddle in every aspect of society; or take democracy out of government.

Do you detect a reductio ad absurdum? Maybe. But this solution is merely a more honest option than the politicians' preferred plan.

After all, socialized elections are undemocratic, too, undemocratic in a very practical sense. They would be so regulated as to channel dissent. It would be even harder for upstarts and challengers truly to challenge incumbents. Every step since Watergate to regulate elections has increased the power of incumbency. We have a startlingly high incumbency success rate now. That would likely increase in socialized elections. Socialized elections amount to a mere halfway measure to getting democracy out of politics.

Which is perhaps why the "old timers" in politics are now coming out for it. It would so play into their hands.

It would lead to democracy precisely as they like it: democracy without citizen control, democracy in name only.

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