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3 ways to fix political campaign spending8 min read

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Three-Branches-of-GovernmentOn my way to work today (I’m at lunch), I listened to the latest Slate Political Gabfest episode, and like usual, was a little stirred up, since it lacks a conservative voice (though John Dickerson does a decent job at presenting and considering the opposing views even if he does not believe them).

Today, they were vigorously discussing the recent Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC  decision, which essentially removed limits for corporate donations to candidates. The leftist populists hate it, the rightist corporate types love it, and those of us with more Libertarian leanings roll our eyes at the entire debacle.

The problem here is that we are not understanding or dealing with the roots of the problem, but rather, the symptoms.  What are the roots of the corruption of money in our government system? And how do we clip them?

1. Reduce the size of central government

The real problem is that we are violating an axiom of human nature:

Ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

Wherever power is concentrated, corruption threatens, and also, money will flow to it. Our founders knew that, and took two measures to prevent this concentration of power:

  • Create a balance of powers
  • Limit the size and function of the federal government

Our founders were pretty clear on this, for example, let me quote mine James Madison:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. ~ James Madison, Federalist No. 45, January 26, 1788

The problem is, we violate the second measure, thinking the first is enough to prevent this type of corruption, and we are wrong.

Most bad government has grown out of too much government. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Even more, Madison called a large federal government madness:

But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm… But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity. ~ James Madison, Federalist No. 46, January 29, 1788

But let me say this – that alone will not solve the problem of corruption, but it will reduce the impact of it if the system being influenced has less power.

2. Moralize our society

In a representative government (as opposed to a tyrannical one), if the leaders are corrupt, it is likely that the people are. But regardless, even the best designed government system will fail if the governed lack virtue  – that is, if they lie, cheat, and steal, you will have chaos or tyranny. Or as John Adams put it:

Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.

The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies. ~ Letter to Zabdiel Adams (21 June 1776)

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” ~ John Adams in a speech to the military in 1798

The problem with moralizing is that you first have to answer a few questions:

  1. Whose morals?
  2. By what means are they evangelized?
  3. By what means are they enforced?

Here’s the time tested answers (you want me to quote more founders?)

Whose Morals?

The common ethics tested by history – the classic “Protestant virtues” (though all value systems that lead to flourishing share these values) of honesty, industry, chastity, loyalty, fidelity, and responsibility.

By what means are they evangelized?

My contention is that moralizing is not primarily in the purview of government – that’s right, government alone can not solve our problems. This is one of the big flaws of Socialist assumptions – its overreach on social engineering undermines personal responsibility and freedom, and presumes that government is the proper and best engine of value propagation in society.

Government can, however, support the virtues of, for instance, marriage, property ownership, business ownership, or saving, by creating incentives (not laws) to encourage this type of behavior. But it can’t mandate them. That’s the overreach. For more on this, see Proportions for Public Policy, the Normal Curve for more on non-coercive public policy.

So who should promote such social change towards moral goods? Non-governmental organizations like churches or other socially oriented groups. Throughout history, NGOs like NOW, the NAACP, or the Tea Party, have worked to sway public opinion. That is not only our right as citizens, it’s our DUTY. Government serves the people, not the other way around – unless you want to be a serf.

Moralizing can be done ethically and passionately, such as that done by the Civil Rights movement, or it can be done arrogantly and forcefully. Not all moralizing is manipulative and bullyish, it can also be enlightening and challenging.

By what means are they enforced?

Public opinion. If we fail to sway the public but try to bully them into abeyance with legislation, that is fascism – either that, or we are willing to risk a civil war for our principle. That is valid when it comes to human rights, but I’m not sure we want to go to war over gay marriage or abortion, both arguably human rights issues.

If we fail to win in the court of public opinion – in a democracy, we have to sit down and wait, or rethink our arguments and style. But we can’t just decide to grab the reigns of power and force legislation through, lest we risk a revolution. There are times when there is a pretty even split that we may want to risk forcing a view through on a partisan vote (e.g. Obamacare), but that’s borderline unethical.

3. Set reasonable guardrails against corruption

Government does have a role in regulating and promoting various behaviors through penalties and incentives (resp.), but it can only really set meaningful guardrails for those who are NOT swayed by the aforementioned moralizing and appeals to the ‘better angels of our nature.’

We must realize that government can not solve this problem all by itself, or we will continue to fight over the problem of corruption and money if we fail to undertake the first two strategies above.

We must also realize that money does not trump all else in government – it is not all powerful. First, money does not always determine outcome, for instance, on issues where the public is engaged, like gun control. Second, you can have a true grassroots movement like the Tea Party, whose power is in numbers, not a few individuals with money.

But the rule is still that money has huge influence, esp. when the legislation is obscure, or has no loud or influential lobby group protecting the people from abuse of power. So we DO need certain caps and regulations on money in government. But the problem will NEVER be entirely gone, esp. if so much power is concentrated in the central, Federal government.


I hate this argument, because as long as we have big government, money will flow in from all sides to influence outcomes. No matter what legislation we pass. The problem is not the money, nor the freedom to give. It’s the behemoth government we have because we are abandoning the wisdom of our founding fathers, arguably men that created the most free and prosperous society in history based on the great ideas of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

And now, I have some moralizing to do.