To Strike at the Root, You Have to Find It

Campaign finance reform is something of a tricky issue. It spotlights some of the problems of applying free market principles in an unsystematic way.

For many libertarians, efforts at campaign finance reform with an eye toward curbing the influence of corporate donors, are worrisome on their face. They seem to strike at the right of individuals, legal or actual, to do what they want with their money, including supporting political candidates in any amount they desire. Since a business entity is just a voluntarily assembled group of free individuals, the logic goes, it too — through its political action committee — ought to be able to donate as much or as little as its members see fit.

The problem with that position is that it trivializes, even ignores, the extent to which the power of big business, the inviolable “private sector,” hinges on state-granted or -protected contraventions of the free market. To the extent that corporate power and riches depend on special privilege, libertarians ought to be more circumspect in their endorsements of judicial decisions like Citizens United v. FEC.

When political commentators on the left talk about “getting money out of politics,” about tighter regulations on campaign contributions and spending, conscientious libertarians should take a moment to think about the big picture. As a matter of course, a free society means the freedom to direct the fruits of your labor where you will, but — it is important to point out — we aren’t living in anything like a free society.

Avoiding myopic, reflex reactions based on a pale excuse for our philosophy, libertarians ought to embrace a robust view that reaches out to those who see the problems with corporate dominance over the political process

Groups like Rootstrikers treat the Occupy protests as a chance to circulate a substantive message for reform. The underlying attitude of Rootstrikers, that the marriage of money and politics amounts to an extreme social evil, is dead on target. They accept that the formula of money plus politics is a recipe for disaster yet insist that only “corrupting money” ought to be removed from politics, that “good government” is possible given the right legal refinements.

What makes Rootstrikers frustrating is how close they come to fully understanding the problem and appreciating the nuances of the big picture. Rootstrikers is a project of Democracy Fund, a group dedicated to the worthy goal of “curb[ing] the undue influence of corporate lobbyists over the U.S. political process.”

In his book, Republic, Lost, Rootstrikers founder and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig writes that “the problem with Congress” is “the product of an economy of influence,” rigorously probing the issue of the revolving door connecting corporate lobbying to DC policymaking.

I recommend the book as an exhaustive, thoughtful study of the ways that intersecting and interconnected mechanisms of power create the abuse and injustice we see all around us. But for all of the accurate diagnoses and understanding contained in Lessig’s and Rootstrikers’ message, the ingenuous trust in government itself remains.

Rather than following the arguments regarding the capital/state nexus to their logical ends, Rootstrikers fail to recognize that — even assuming that publicly-funded campaigns would cut against the broad problem of special interest corruption — it is the state that is the ultimate source of the trouble.

As long as there are favors to dispense, privileges grounded in authority and force, a small, inner circle of the rich will purchase access to them at our loss and their advantage. This is not the nature of the current manifestation of the state, but of the state itself.

Market anarchists argue that economic decisions ought to be made by free individuals governing their own lives outside of violent imposition. Both the benefits and the costs of those decisions would be born by the people making them, not externalized upon unsuspecting and innocent taxpayers.

The state is, by definition, a vehicle for corruption. It allows a small group of people to use violence to stack the deck and constrain economic activity in their favor. If you want to strike the root, it is the intellectual and philosophical foundations of statism that you must attack.

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