The False Gore of Campaign Finance Reform

Steven Hayward

March 1, 2000

Vice President Al Gore is doing his best impression of Claude Rains in Casablanca—shocked, shocked, that there are abuses of campaign finance laws taking place in America. Having allegedly broken several existing campaign laws, Gore now wants a new set of laws to break. The audacity of Gore’s newfound enthusiasm for reform challenges the metaphorical imagination, such as the fox calling for a new guard on the hen house after he’s eaten all the chickens.

While Al Gore coming out for campaign finance reform may seem a little like Richard Nixon coming out against secret taping, we should never underestimate the zeal of a converted sinner. The trouble with Gore’s crusade for campaign finance reform, as with John McCain’s, is that it is taking place in a strange vacuum, as though money itself were the evil, rather than the “special” interests which the money represents.

McCain and Gore are fundamentally right about the Washington “iron triangle,” whose three sides are the Congress, the bureaucracy, and the corps of lobbyists who toil on behalf of “special” interests. Money makes the triangle ring: Congress raises it through taxes and appropriates it to the bureaucracy, and the “special” interests want a piece of it. So the “special” interests give campaign cash to politicians, hoping to keep their feeding trough filled with grub.

It is supposed that this is a contemporary problem, yet interests cajoling legislatures for special favors are as old as democracy itself. James Madison warned about this problem in the Federalist Papers, referring to “factions” whose own interest was “adverse to the rights of other citizens.” Madison proposed two ways to remove the causes of special interests, and neither of them was campaign finance reform.

First, Madison wrote, you could remove the liberty which gives rise to special interest. Clearly that would be contrary to the very purpose of democracy. Second, we could give to every citizen the same opinions, passions, and interests—another absurd idea. Clearly, Madison concluded, these remedies are worse than the disease. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” Madison observed, “an aliment without which it instantly expires.” The causes of faction, Madison concluded, “are thus sewn in the nature of man.” This is why “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention.”

Madison’s answer was: let a thousand interests bloom. Special interests clashing with each other in the deliberate framework of the Congress would tend to cancel each other out. To be sure, interests would get their way about some things, but large predations against the public don’t tend to take place because other interests block the way. The proliferation of interests acts to restrict Congress’s field of action—the chief aim of limited government.

One difference between Madison’s time and ours is that today when we speak of “special” interests, we imply that all “special” interests are illegitimate. But is this really so? Are labor unions pressing for worker rights and privileges an illegitimate interest? Or an industry pressing for a tax break to allow it to create new jobs? Surely these are matters of degree, the subject for reasoned debate.

And on the other end of the scale, “public” interest groups such as Common Cause or environmental organizations pursue public policies on behalf of an ideological point of view, which can be just as insidious (and self-serving) as any economic interest group. Yet “public” interest groups tend not to be lumped in with the evil “special” interests.

It should raise some doubts in our mind, then, that campaign finance reform is the chief cause of so many “public” interest groups, whose ideological interest in changing America is typically blocked by groups with economic interests. This is what makes campaign finance reform far from a neutral reform. It favors certain kinds of elite groups over others, by removing the connection between office holders and legitimate economic interests. Gore’s proposal to have a $7 billion endowment to pay for congressional elections would isolate the political class from “special” interests of all kinds—exactly opposite of the spirit of Madison.

Allowing the government to regulate elections—the very process by which our government is constituted—in the same way we regulate commerce is not only problematic in itself, but objectively serves the cause of bigger government. Once our legislators seal themselves off from the potential of private interests to threaten their re-election, there is less of a brake on new and oppressive legislation. That is why the correct metaphor for Gore’s campaign reform proposal is the fox putting up a fence around the hen house while he remains inside, free to eat up all the chickens at his leisure.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.