Campaign Finance Reform: Fool’s Gold

Imagine if George W. Bush would declare that, as part of the war on terrorism, he proposed the Patriot Act II, which would grant the federal government power to collect information on political activity of citizens. Not only would the federal government collect your information, but they would make it publicly available for your employer, colleagues, friends, neighbors, or groups who might protest outside your home. How would the public react?

In a recent video for the Reason Foundation, former FEC head Brad Smith asks this very question – but notes we already have this law on the books, under the guise of “Campaign Finance Reform.”

At the Commonwealth Foundation, we have been critical of proposals to limit political contributions and campaign expenditures, or to fund political campaigns with taxpayer money, noting that such limits are a violation of the freedom of speech. The fact that they violate a constitutionally protected right should be reason enough to reject such ideas, but there are more: Campaign finance reforms have failed to deliver the promised results of good government.

Federal campaign finance laws, and similar reforms in other states, have not increased the number of candidates, improved their quality, or made elections more competitive. Corruption in politics is as widespread as ever. What’s worse is that campaign finance laws — crafted by sitting lawmakers — have tended to benefit the re-election odds of incumbents. So we get the fa├žade of reform without any real reform.

The real problem in government isn’t too much money, but too much government. So long as government is allowed to usurp and exercise power beyond its constitutional limits to redistribute wealth, we will always have special interests trying to influence government, and we will never “get money out of politics.” The only way to limit the influence of money in politics is to limit the size and role of government.

But an interesting question is whether campaign finance disclosure itself is a good idea. Does disclosing campaign contributors reduce corruption and scandal, or put contributors at risk of facing political pressure and retribution for their donations? We’ve certainly seen the latter occur.

Cross-Posted at Capital Domes.