The Libertarian Case Against "Public" Financing of Elections


The Watergate scandal has spawned numerous proposals for limitations on private campaign contributions and total campaign spending, as well as plans to finance campaigns out of tax revenues. All of these proposals would deny fundamental rights of individuals, increase the politicians' control of elections and do nothing to eliminate the root causes of Watergate.

One of the basic rights of free people is freedom from governmental restrictions on speech. No matter how foolish, dull, or evil you may think a speech or campaign pamphlet is, as long as it is not libelous or fraudulent, the person who pays for it has the right to use his resources, to whatever extent he chooses, to support any cause or candidate. Freedom of speech means nothing if it does not include the right to say things others disagree with.

It is especially crucial that the government be prevented from restricting what one may say about the government itself. The advocates of contribution and spending limitations say they will make elections more "fair," but no system can be fair if it restricts the ways in which a person can peacefully spend his own money and what he can say about political issues.

The effect of the proposed regulations (and some already passed) is substantially to favor incumbents, that is, those politicians already in power (many of whom spent more to get themselves elected than they will allow challengers to spend under the new laws). Incumbents receive constant free publicity. Their activities and pronouncements are "news" and they frequently give speeches at public events and private organizations. Congressmen and senators can send mail to their constituents without paying postage. Incumbents have myriad committees, departments, agencies, and bureaus at their disposal continually to issue press releases to inform the public about their "achievements." It is the challenger, the independent, the critic—be it of taxes, bureaucracy, war, inflation, strangulation of business, or oppression of minorities—who will not be heard. Bureaucracy and corruption will not be stopped.

Taxation-financing of campaigns is another can of worms. If you want to contribute some of your money to a candidate or cause you believe in, you should be free to do so. If your contribution goes through a new federal bureaucracy, a big bite of it will be taken out to pay the bureaucrats' salaries and expenses, so it makes no sense to contribute that way. A person who favors taxation-financing of campaigns wants to force others to pay for the causes he believes in. Taxation financing of anything means forcing taxpayers to give up money they have earned to pay for something they may not want and may even strongly oppose. It is unjust, for example, to force a McGovern supporter to contribute to a Nixon campaign, and it is unjust to force a Nixon supporter to contribute to a McGovern campaign. Almost half the qualified voters didn't vote at all in 1972. If they didn't even think it was worth the effort to vote, where is the justice in forcing them to pay for what they may well have considered worthless political rhetoric? (The myth that voting is a citizen's duty should be carefully examined. No person who respects himself and values his freedom has a duty to choose between rulers.) Why should a person who recognizes the inherent corruption of government and wants to be left alone to live and work in peace be forced to pay for the campaigns of politicians who are eager to regulate every aspect of his life and rob him of a still higher percentage of his earnings?

Taxation-financing of campaigns gives the government, that is, those in power, the authority to set qualifications for the receipt of funds. Hence, they will have the power to decide who can run for office. They will of course set up some rules and call them "fair," but there is no fair way for a bureaucrat or politician to decide which candidate may run and which may not. The Kennedy-Scott campaign financing bill would have given millions of taxpayers' dollars to the Democratic and Republican parties and not a penny to any small parties. Although many exist, you rarely see small parties on the ballot because the laws setting the requirements were written by politicians of the two major parties. Small parties provide an outlet for new ideas and criticism of entrenched politicians. They would be destroyed by giving the government control of campaign financing.

Thus, spending and contribution limitations and government financing will inevitably lead to total government control of elections and an end of free speech in political matters. It is ironic that these measures are prompted by evidence that politicians can not be trusted.

But what about Watergate, the milk deal, the Vesco case and countless earlier cases where large sums of money were paid for government favors? Such scandals won't be eliminated until their causes are understood. People and corporations do not spend thousands of dollars unless there is something to buy. Politicians have power for sale.

As long as the government has the power to set import quotas and tariffs, to hand out subsidies, loans, grants, and contracts, or regulate the price of every product it had no hand in producing, to decide who can and who can't practice almost any profession or trade, to impose countless regulations on businesses and so on and so on, ad infinitum, some corporations and individuals will pay for the favorable use of that power and others will pay merely for protection from it. Politicians have become modern "protection" racketeers; instead of threatening a fire in your store, they threaten a fine, an IRS audit, or an antitrust suit.

So long as the government has such immense power, there will be buyers, even if the price is paid by devious methods to get around new laws regulating campaign spending.

Guest editorialist Sara Baase is chairman of the San Diego chapter of Libertarian Alternative.