The Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, now awaiting President Bush's signature or veto, is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. In fact, because the disease is misdiagnosed the cure could be fatal.
First, the reformers fail to understand that the most narrowly blinkered special interests — those motivated entirely for private gain at the expense of the common good — generally exist because they have been created, or forced into existence, by government policies, taxes, subsidies, and contracts. When a thousand details of our lives are determined by the central government, its only natural for those hindered (or helped) to try to influence how the rules are made.
As the reach of big government continues to extend, everyone becomes potentially or actually a special interest. Do you work? Then whatever industry you are employed in makes you part of a special interest, even if you're self-employed. Live in a city? That's the urban special interest. Or maybe on a farm? Then you're in the agricultural special interest. Over age 65? That's one of the most powerful special interests in America. College student? They're a special interest too. Own a gun? That's a special interest. Hate guns? Ditto. Environmentalist? Developer? Insurance agent? Trial lawyer? Interests all.
But Shays-Meehan's proponents would say that not all these groups make huge campaign contributions to buy access and influence. The real problem is with big corporations, unions, and a few mega-interests like the National Rifle Association, right? Actually, no. First, any explicit quid pro quo is already illegal; it's called bribery. And mere "access" often isn't worth the money. (What did Enron get for its donations?)
More importantly, as Federal Election Commissioner Bradley Smith points out, no one corporation or lobby contributes more than a drop in the bucket of all the money spent in a given campaign. There are so many points of pressure on any given issue that they create a kind of equilibrium. In the swirl of competing interests, public-spirited deliberation — and at the highest level, statesmanship — can occupy the calm center. The reformers, however, are so transfixed by the storm they fail to see the eye. Overestimating the dangers of special interests, the sponsors of Shays-Meehan neglect their duty to moderate and transcend those interests. Their solution is a primitive and disastrous attempt simply to banish them.
The Framers of the Constitution, on the other hand, expressly accommodated a "multiplicity of interests" in politics. As they explained in the Federalist Papers, a free society as large and diverse as ours will always have people who work in different fields, live in different communities, and have different opinions. Citizens will thus divide themselves, quite naturally, into different interests or factions. These differences are "sown in the nature of man." To attempt to suppress or abolish them, the Framers argued, would lead to a tyranny much worse than the conflict and chaos of competing interests. "Liberty is to faction," James Madison explained in Federalist 10, "what air is to fire."
In other words, the only way to eliminate factions or special interests — as Shays-Meehan tries to do — is by destroying freedom: freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom to petition the government. This, Madison says, is as foolish as suffocating ourselves to extinguish a fire.
The Founders were clear-eyed enough to see that self-interest and the factions it generated were an inevitable part of politics. As long as there is a large variety of them, their influence could be counterbalanced, muted, and moderated. Statesmen in government could act as impartial referees, allowing all factions to have their say, but bending them toward a public good.
Today, however, the federal government — with its nearly three million civilian employees and myriad agencies — has a great many interests of its own. Government is no longer an impartial umpire, but also a participant. The "special" interests so reviled by reformers are nothing but the interests of private parties (citizens and their businesses) trying to compete against more entrenched interests (government bureaucrats, elected incumbents, and dependents lined up at the public trough).
Before signing this bill, and thereby breaking one of his campaign pledges, President Bush should consider that the way to get money out of politics is to get government back within its constitutional limits. That course would have the virtue of being both useful and right.