Congress Shall Make No Law...
7:09 PM
You get what you pay for

One of the more persistent myths of government campaign financing programs is that their purpose is to enhance First Amendment values. Justice Kagan made that claim on Monday when she said during the oral argument in the IJ/Goldwater challenge to Arizona’s system that with government financing, “it’s more speech all the way around.” The Huffington Post repeats this argument.


But government funding in any area never measures up to its proponents rosy predictions. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were supposed to provide retirement funds and medical care for a small segment of the population. All three are now gigantic bankrupt welfare programs that provide fewer and fewer benefits at a higher and higher cost. Government meddling in the housing industry certainly provided more homes, but, as the ensuing housing crash and depressed market have shown, it turned out they were homes that no one wanted. The list of government failures of this type is almost endless.


Why would we expect government campaign funding to be any different?


In fact, the purpose of state funding isn’t to increase speech at all, but to reduce it by limiting campaign spending. Proponents of Arizona’s system made this perfectly clear when the law was being debated. As one document said at the time, state funding will




The structure of the law leaves no doubt about its purpose. In exchange for state money to run their elections, candidates may not accept private funds and must limit their spending to the amount of the grants the state provides. Less spending necessarily means less speech during the election. How exactly does that serve First Amendment “values”?


And not just anyone can receive state funds. If they could, every crackpot with an axe to grind would run for office on the government’s dime. So the law requires candidates to qualify by raising a sufficient number of $5 contributions—4410 for governor, 2755 for attorney general and so on. Most “average citizens” are not going to convince thousands of people to give them $5 to run for public office. In fact, the type of person who is likely to do that is the same type who would run without public financing. That has often been the case in Arizona, as many candidates who formerly raised private funds just switched to the state-funded system. If these people were willing to sell their souls for a few private campaign contributions, what is the likelihood that they suddenly became virtuous when they accepted state funding? And the qualifying contribution requirement places a premium on connections to groups, like unions, that can produce a lot of individual $5 contributions in a hurry. So much for getting “special interests” out of campaigns.


Under state-funded campaigns, the main difference from what we have now is that candidates have less reason to meet with supporters, who previously funded their campaigns, and will definitely have to limit their spending and thus the speech their campaigns produce.


As my colleague Bill Maurer aptly put it during his argument to the Supreme Court, “This case is about whether the government may insert itself into elections and manipulate campaign spending to favor its preferred candidates.” These programs deserve to die a hasty death.