How About Public Financing?
Some would argue that much of the problem with the current system is that private fundraising should be eliminated, and that the government should pay for elections. Many freedom-lovers have serious problems with this idea that go way beyond a dislike of the IRS.
The first problem is incumbency. If there is an incumbent on the ballot, equal funding means an unfair race. Incumbents can use their office for publicity purposes, and they can buy votes with pork-barrel spending and constituent service. This problem could be fixed if my rule about no running for office while holding office were in force.
The second, and smaller danger, is idiocy. Do we want people who cannot attract voluntary funds to get government funds to use to voice their ideas? Maybe. Having some real flakes running television ads would make campaigns considerably more entertaining. Alas, at some point the wasted money will draw criticism. This is especially true for presidential races, which require tens of millions of dollars per candidate to get the word out.
The final and biggest danger is autocracy. Somehow the government needs to decide who gets the public finance money. Given various governments’ records on who gets to be on the ballot, I see a tremendous potential for abuse in the form of qualifications for matching funds. We can already see this in the way the Democrats and Republicans help themselves to funds for the presidential race. The Reform Party got some money once, but it was not equal to what the legacy parties got. There may be examples of a government behaving itself in this regard, but once the crackpots figure out how to make use of an open system, a closed, potentially autocratic system is likely to follow.
Update (2018): My views on public financing have changed a bit since this article was first written. Here are a couple of possibilities for your consideration.
- Full public funding for incumbents only. If we are going to allow incumbents to run for office, we could still eliminate fundraising by office holders by publicly funding the incumbents. This should be coupled with less restrictions on the funding of challengers. The amount of public funding should be on the order of half of what the most well funded challenger raised in the previous race -- because it takes money to raise money.
- Give citizens vouchers to donate to candidates. One way to dilute the power of big money donors is to give every citizen some vouchers to donate to the challengers of their choice. This way, individual citizens, not the FEC, determine which challengers get public funding. (I would still allow private funds as well, especially in the early stages of a campaign. It takes money/celebrity to attract lots of small donations, even if those donations are in the form of vouchers.)
Suppose the local Ku Klux Klan was able to meet the qualifications for public financing? Or the local Nazis, or Stalinists, or any group you consider particularly despicable.
- Would you be willing to accept their getting public money as the price for public financing?
- If not, what measures would you take to keep them away from public funds? How would you stay within the confines of the First Amendment? How would you prevent the government from selecting itself?