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Corruption and Campaign Finance

Mises Daily: Saturday, October 16, 1999 by

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Sparks flew on the United States Senate floor on Thursday and Friday, October 14 and 15, when Senators from Kentucky, Utah, and Washington took umbrage at Senator John McCain's allegations of corruption supposedly directly tied to the policy of soft money contributions to senatorial campaigns.

Senator McCain had a tough time dodging his three colleagues' ire, considering that he listed some of their appropriations to home town industries as examples of the corruption his own campaign finance legislation is supposed to eliminate. All Senator McCain could say is: I am talking about the system and not specific individuals. But then why did he list the examples?

His colleagues certainly had a point asking for specific proof of corruption–indeed, passages from ethics legislation were read into the record which demand that when a senator knows of corruption, this must be communicated and demonstrated, not merely mentioned in general terms.

Of course Senator McCain's point is valid as far as it goes: the system is corrupt, and it is this general sentiment that gives the reform movement whatever public support it has. But let’s add this proviso: it is not the campaign financing itself, not even the soft money element of it, that is corrupt; what is corrupt is the bloated leviathan state itself which has so much money and so many favors to pass out.

A government that redistributes wealth is a government that is inherently corrupt–morally if not legally–because it engages in extortion. You can only hold down a job if you will part with some of your income so government officials can then use that income for purposes about which you may have had nothing to say. This is no different from how organized criminal groups extorts money so as to provide "protection." You can only operate your business if you pay them a chunk of wealth which they will then use as they see fit, never mind your needs or wants.

Senator McCain's hopes, of course, are silly: no government that has enacted even the most draconian measures regulating campaign financing–not Japan, not Canada, not France–has experienced improvement in public respect following the legislation. Quite the contrary.

Campaign financing is now a routine and most who contribute do so in some general hope that their contribution will not be forgotten in the course of wealth redistribution. There is no need to allege any specific corruption, given that right now politicians see themselves as legitimately taking back the bacon to their constituents. The idea is simple enough: You vote for me and help me get elected, I try to get as much of the federal pie for you as my powers allow. It is perfectly legal to do this in a democratic welfare state–that is the very nature, even the very point, of such a system. So when members of Congress carry out this mandate, it is curious to call them corrupt.

Yes, there is moral corruption is afoot there are corrupt individuals involved. And those corrupt individuals are all the politicians who support and participate in the processes of the redistributive welfare state–including Senator John McCain. His campaign finance reform efforts are entirely superfluous–what is needed is the abolition of the redistributive state, period. Otherwise all the money flowing into the politicians' coffers amounts to the legitimate efforts of citizens to make their pleas for part of the US treasury, which is exactly what the welfare state would have us aim for.

No, it will do no good at all to charge members of our political system with corruption: they consider the charge in a purely legalistic way and deny it. They claim to operate in accordance with the laws of this country and are, therefore, not legally corrupt. But a legal system itself can be morally corrupt apart from any law breaking. That is when certain crucial elements of the system are do violence not to principles of law but to principles of justice.

That is how we can judge a system such as the Soviet Union or the Third Reich corrupt: their laws violate principles of justice. And that is so with the leviathan state in the US. But it will help none at all to limit campaign financing to remedy this. What must be demolished is the system that rewards powerful people for taking and spending money that does not properly belong to them.

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TIBOR R. MACHAN teaches at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.