On Money and Politics

Is Money the Problem?

There are many people who decry the influence of money in politics, but to be honest, I think most of them are confused about the causes and effects involved.  People will immediately assume that cash waved in a politician’s face will readily buy influence, and sadly, in all too many cases, they’re correct.  The question then becomes one of cause and effect, however, and I think this is where most people become confused.  Did the money corrupt the politician, or did he corrupt the money?  It remains my proposal to all who will listen that it is naive to believe that so long as government is involved in every facet of our daily lives, that you will ever substantially reduce corruption.  Every official has some financial interests, and it’s in this atmosphere that some propose that money must be gotten out of politics?  No, there’s no rational way to do so without destroying liberty, and besides, it doesn’t offer any hope of solving the actual cause of the problem.

There’s an old and important rule of economics that says simply:  One cannot purchase at any price that which is not for sale. The root of the corruption we see in politics lies not with those interests throwing about cash, but with the politicians who in one way or another accept money and benefits from them.  If you want to make a substantial change in the way politicians in Washington or anywhere else behave, you must address the corruption at its fundamental root:  The politician who is for sale.  If it were mine to do, and if there were even the slightest hope of enacting it, I would propose a new constitutional amendment stating simply:

Corruption among elected or appointed public officials constituting the better part of the potential evils of government, any official of government who uses their office and official authority for private gain, or gain of any sort beyond his salaries and benefits shall be eligible for trial as for charge of treason, with the same penalties to be applied.

The first time a public official faces such a charge, it will have a profound effect.  It’s easy for them to pretend they’re putting tough new limits and reforms in place, but the truth is that their regulations tend to punish them the most lightly of all, reserving the worst punishments for others.  I’ve always thought that the willing recipient of a bribe is far worse than the person who offered it.  As I said, it’s impossible to purchase influence if it isn’t for sale.

Of course, the problem extends beyond politicians.  In many cases, Congressional staff members are involved in the key details of writing legislation that ultimately profits a particular business or group, or class of citizens, and all too frequently, themselves.  The same goes for the extensive bureaucracy and the regulations they craft.  Too often, regulations are authored in order to benefit somebody in particular, but the only way to limit this effectively is to restrict that which government may regulate.  What we need to combat all of this is a separation of economics and State at least as thorough as that which we have erected between Church and State. The simple fact is that so long as government has its fingers in every pie, there will be reason to expect that those who own the pies will seek to minimize their losses.

I believe disclosure is critical.  Campaigns and causes should be required to list their contributors and donors from largest to smallest.  The truth is, I don’t care if you’re a billionaire and wish to spend a pile of money on a single candidate.  I would merely require that your contributions be listed and published prominently by any campaign to which you contribute.  I find it’s better and more honest to get it in the open.  How many of you would like to know exactly how much in indirect contributions Soros made to Barack Obama through intermediaries like MoveOn and other entities?  In this way, disclosure provides the key.  They’re going to find a way to do it so long as politicians have the monumental power you’ve permitted them to arrogate to themselves, so it is better that at the very least, we know in detail who is funding whom.

The other problem is that it’s usually not bribery per se, but more frequently a form of extortion.  It works like this:  Legislator Doe introduces a bill that would, on its face, harm the interests of a particular entity, knowing that this entity will then come in with a deal.  It’s a bit of a protection racket, and it’s not even hidden.  They do this sort of thing on a continual basis, because in terms of the number of laws enacted each year, there’s simply too much opportunity, and most of the laws aren’t written to prevent this sort of corruption.  That may be the real “trick” in all of this:  Too often, since they make the laws, they decide what does and does not constitute a violation of law on their part.  Prodding Congress to police itself is not going to be easy, if it can be done at all.  This is why various campaign finance reform initiatives, including McCain-Feingold are destined for failure.

I believe in free speech.  I believe that money spent in politics constitutes free speech.  Free speech does not apply to any other sort of entity than individual people.  The  sorry game that has cost the American people dearly is augmented by rules that limit what Americans can contribute in one form, while giving preference to a relative few Americans in another.  Newspapers, radio and television stations or networks function as advocates perpetually.  Is there a spending limit on how much positive coverage the New York Times can give to President Obama?  No, of course not, and there should not be.  Individual citizens are having this same right denied them by the FEC(Federal Elections Commission) on the shoddy basis that they’re not protected as “the press” under the First Amendment.

For instance, if you run a blog, you could be considered to have contributed to a campaign merely by linking to its website.  The value of the alleged contribution increases on the basis of how much traffic your blog sees.  The same thing is true of commentary on some TV stations, although other outlets have exemptions under the law.  This is clearly intended to stifle free speech, and yet TV funny-man(?) Stephen Colbert  wanted to lampoon the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, and among the other things he wanted to do was to set up a PAC(Political Action Committee.)  Imagine his surprise when he found the maze of laws that would obstruct him. Colbert found himself facing the very obstacles he insists other must face, and he didn’t like it very much.

Let’s be honest about something else, while we’re at it.  Your money is yours.  If you want to spend all you have in support of a cause or a candidate, by what authority does anybody lay a claim to restrict you?  More, what authority does government have in defining what is “the press,” or more frequently, what is not?  The problem with all of this regulation of speech is that there is no fixed bright line, and depending upon who is pulling the strings at a given moment, the rules will be shifted and twisted to suit the cronies of whomever holds power.  Free speech isn’t really free when some people are forced to comply with regulations while others are exempted from those same regulations on the basis of some arbitrary law or rule.

The truth is simply that money doesn’t corrupt politics.  People do.  If you want reform, the only way you’re going to have it is to move toward a free speech paradigm in which all are unshackled in their speech, but that full disclosure of contributors and donors is known, ranked from largest to smallest, so that all discerning citizens can choose accordingly when they head to the polls.   We need also to get government out of the business of business. Too frequently, it is the involvement of government that makes it possible  for corporate  interests to buy influence.  If government officials weren’t offering influence, for what purpose would corporations lobby them?  To reform this system, we’re going to need honest people in Congress willing to live under a much more strict regimen, and part of this will include sending the professional staff home.  Too many of them have far too much influence on legislation, and until we start sending them home with the politicians for whom they work, we’re not going to get very far.  Money is a problem in politics only inasmuch as people are open to corruption.  That’s the root of our trouble, and it’s the most difficult problem to fix.

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4 Responses to On Money and Politics

  1. WardR says:

    I agree with most of your essay, Mark, but there's a point I think you're overlooking: In my experience, about two-thirds of the D.C. lobbying is focused on trying to prevent something being done to a company, rather than trying to get something for it.

    There is an excellent practical reason why conservatives should favor eliminating whole cabinet-level departments: In general, conservatives are not that interested in working for government. Because of this, enormous agencies are essentially staffed top to bottom with big-spending liberals. And keep in mind that the civil service system rewards empire-building and punishes efficiency. How? Rank depends in part on the number of people supervised; get another worker and get an automatic promotion. Unfortunately, it works is reverse, too.

    Let's shrink the government!

    • MarkAmerica says:

      I agree. That's why I mentioned the "protection racket" aspects of what goes on, and why I think it mostly comes down to big government's overreach into business.

  2. C Bartlett says:

    I agree with your assessment completely – money is the root of almost all evil. (Isn't that written somewhere?!) Two additional thoughts: (1) Term limits would help – not completely solve the problem, but help – because there would be limited time to develop the capital contacts and less reason to have to continue them if not constantly running for re-election. Also – people that are elected would actually have to have a "real" job to back to – they wouldn't be vested in becoming career politicians and might think twice about screwing with the system they will eventually have to live and work in. (Even dogs don't poop in their own bed, as my husband says.) (2) If the media was not so biased and REALLY did their job, corruption would be checked automatically. Once the information was out, the public would either scream for their removal or, at the very least, not re-elect them. Unfortunately, I have no idea why journalists tend to be so liberal nor how to cure that problem.

    Another way that money is seriously complicating issues right now is the way so many people with government jobs (agencies, etc) are so vigorously protecting (and even growing) their "kingdoms". Getting rid of the unneeded federal agencies and all of their ridiculous regulations will be an uphill battle as long as there are so many government employees (and their families?) with a vested interest in not losing their jobs, especially in an economy where another one is difficult or impossible to get.

    • MarkAmerica says:

      CBartlett, I believe the phrase is actually "the love of money is the root of all evil." I don't agree with that at all. I think money is the root of all good in the world. One of these days, I'm going to post an excerpt from Atlas Shrugged that perfectly illuminates this point. Term limits will only slightly help. Until you term limit the congressional staff and bureaucracy with them, the beat will go on.

      The issue of bureaucratic growth is well-documented. I wish we could just toss half of these agencies right off the bat, and strictly reduce others. Thanks! Mark