Harvard law professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig is mounting an intriguing run for President. Lessig’s symbolic campaign will be entirely funded by crowdsourced donations since he has a one-issue platform: campaign finance reform. If elected president, Lessig would attempt to pass a single law through Congress which would scrap existing private campaign financing in favor of a public system under which citizens could fund their favored candidates through small tax vouchers. Lessig has said after passing the law, he’d resign from office. Like many others before him, Lessig denounces the multi-billion dollar industry that American electioneering has become but proposes an inadequate remedy.
Lessig isn’t wrong to detest the baldly corrupt American political system. In the 2016 presidential race, less than 400 of the country’s wealthiest families will contribute nearly half of the overall money raised. The well-known billionaire business magnates that make up that list (the Schwabs, Larry Ellison, and Norman Braman, to name just a few) have a lot riding on the success of their presidential racehorses. Knowing that their houses of cards depend largely on political protection, these corporate pigs feeding at the political trough understand that elections are of paramount importance.
Nineteenth century French radical Frederic Bastiat described this symbiotic relationship aptly when he wrote, “the state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.” No group benefits more from this parasitism than the upper echelons of the business class, who will spare no expense to purchase a cadre of politicians in order to keep their already well-oiled profit machines running smoothly.
Lessig, like so many other well-intentioned campaign finance reformists, mistakes the symptom for the disease. While campaign donations are little more than thinly-veiled bribery, they’re only the product of much deeper problem – that of political authority.
Without political authority, the billions paid by corporate leaches to their public stooges would have little practical effect. It is the ability of the political class to implement the dictates of their wealthy benefactors that makes campaign donations so profitable. Absent the force of the law backing blatant corporate handouts like the Drug War, intellectual property, perpetual warfare, and a giant banking cartel, American taxpayers would simply not stand by as their looted incomes fund these monstrosities.
Banning large campaign donations might have a temporary effect which would last only until the business class figures out the most efficient way to subvert new campaign financing regulations. Eventually, the bribery would be pushed underground if necessary; or, as C4SS’s James C. Wilson argued, it might simply take place through influential intermediaries like the always for-sale American media. As long as the state carries a monopoly on law-making and enforcement, there will be suit-and-tie welfare queens knocking on their doors.
Campaign finance reform is a Band-Aid on the gaping wound that is government. While Lessig can’t be faulted for his desire to change the corrupt nature of Washington, it’d be far preferable to see him use his position of prominence to attack the relationship between the political and business classes at its very foundation, rather than poking at it with a stick.