by Tim O'Brien
October 21, 1999
Someone once observed that, when legislation is for sale, the first thing that will be bought and sold is legislators. It seems that everyone has finally come to realize that something needs to be done about it.
In Washington the U.S. Senate recently filibustered a bill that would have banned what is called "soft" money (contributions to political parties rather than specific candidates), unregulated under current law.
Meanwhile, here in Michigan public interest groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are planning an initiative imposing some combination of contribution limits and taxpayer financing for state House, state Senate and gubernatorial campaigns.
But all of these schemes are merely treating the symptoms of the problem instead of its underlying cause.
The fundamental reason for our current difficulties is that the founders of our republic never intended for politicians to have the power to meddle in the economy.
"A wise and frugal government," observed President Jefferson, "which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned -- this is the sum of good government."
We have obviously strayed a long way from our third president's conception of good government in the intervening two centuries. Try and think of one aspect of your life that isn't taxed, regulated or otherwise dictated by government at one level or another. From bedroom to boardroom, nowadays, what isn't prohibited is required.
Once government goes beyond its only legitimate function -- protecting its citizens from foreign armies and domestic criminals -- and begins taxing some products and services, subsidizing others, and regulating everything, there will simply be no way of stopping those who are affected from seeking to influence the process. The handmaidens of overreaching government are as predictable as they are inevitable.
Like a hapless cartoon character trying to cope with a leaky dike by sticking fingers and toes into each new hole only to have another leak spring somewhere else, reformers persist in their futile quest to plug up the money leaks in our political system.
How can they remain so blissfully oblivious, for instance, to the fact that the "PACs" and the "soft money" subterfuge they now seek to control is a child of their own previous, post-Watergate efforts at campaign finance reform?
The special interests and their wholly-owned politicians always have and always will stay one step ahead.
Case in point. A couple of years ago, an Indonesian businessman, after visiting the White House several times, gave former Assistant Attorney General (and "Friend Of Bill") Webster Hubbel half a million dollars in cash and contracts. Mr. Hubbel then suddenly developed amnesia with regard to the president's involvement in Whitewater. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Clinton reversed himself on granting China "Most Favored Nation" trade status -- a change eagerly sought by the businessman who began this whole quid-pro-quo-once-removed.
Reformers are no doubt already preparing new proposals to address this kind of situation.
There is nothing mysterious here about the problem. Or the solution.
Restrict our government, at all levels, to its only legitimate function: protecting good and honorable people from bad and dishonorable people.
Then you won't have to worry about self-proclaimed "Supermarket to the World" Archer-Daniels-Midland financing politicians who then promote corn subsidies. Or Chase-Manhattan Bank supporting other politicians who favor propping up the Mexican peso with loans guaranteed by American taxpayers. Or a thousand other examples, large and small, that have become the stock-in-trade of politicians.
Attempting to remedy this problem with yet another round of campaign finance reform, on the other hand, is like trying to treat tuberculosis with cough medicine.
Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.