Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Kill campaign-finance reform with the First Amendment
Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey stands up for private money in politics, and presents an argument why Arizona's system of public campaign finance is unconstitutional.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week it would hear a case against a system of public finance of political campaigns. The system is Arizona's, but a similar plan is used in eight other states and has been promoted here.
One of the lawyers likely to argue the case is also from here. He is Bill Maurer, 43, of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm.
Under Arizona's law, the state will give a political candidate a sum of public money if he agrees not to use private money.
Alternately, a candidate may raise private money in limited amounts from each donor and use any money of his own. But if he spends more than the state's limit, the state sends matching money to each of his publicly funded opponents, but not his privately funded opponents. And if an outside group working on his behalf spends money over the state's limit, the state also sends matching money to the candidate's publicly funded opponents.
You see the purpose. It is to make political spending equal. But equality and freedom are not the same things. To make two quantities equal, you have to limit at least one. And, in a campaign for public office, if you limit money you are limiting speech — and limits on speech concern the First Amendment.
Arizona's system is an attempt to get around the First Amendment. It aims to equalize speech by subsidy. The successful private money-raiser will find the handout to his less-entrepreneurial rivals annoying, but the state says to him, "We're not limiting you."
Oh yes, you are, says Maurer. Because of the subsidy, he says, "My act of speaking provides a direct benefit to my opponents." That's a limit. It is a penalty for continuing to speak, and it is meant to be a penalty.
"Our argument," says Maurer, "is that it's not the government's place to say who is speaking too much, or too little."
You see where this argument goes. Ultimately, it means campaign-finance reform fails. The First Amendment kills it.
Already, Arizona's system is compromised from the pure idea that all campaigns should be funded with public money. Many people still believe in that idea. Ban private money. Send political candidates a government check. Force campaigns into Voter's Pamphlet-type formats. Do these things, and politicians will stick to the issues. But we already have an egalitarian format: debates. And how illuminating are they?
I say, let campaign-finance reform fail. Let candidates raise whatever money they can, as long as the public can see who the large donors are. We in the media will cover them. We love to cover them. You will know who they are.
Private cash can corrupt. But in the American political system, a wad of private cash can also open up new choices. It was private money that backed outlier candidates like Henry Wallace in 1948, Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ron Paul in 2008.
George Gilder once wrote that private money is "the wild card, the mutagenic germ, of capitalism ... It is discretionary capital that finances most of what is original and idiosyncratic in our culture and economy, that launches the apparently hopeless causes in business and politics."
It is a mistake to keep private money out of politics. And in any case, the Supreme Court may well decide next year that one of Arizona's means of discouraging it is unconstitutional.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com
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