In the last few years, everyone has started harping about political reform – even politicians, which is how you know it’s bunk. Drunks don’t tell you how to lock the liquor cabinet unless they’ve got another key safely stashed away.
Still, some folks’ intuition is about as well-honed as a bowl of oatmeal, and they see nothing strange about a guy like Sen. McCain calling for limits on his own campaign fund.
Arianna Huffington’s 2000 book, “How to Overthrow the Government,” spits out the increasingly tired canards about “corrupt, ineffectual career politicians” and “fat-cat ‘leaders'” pandering “to their richest soft-money contributors. …” Her solution is curtailing soft money, and she throws out the standard cheering section for campaign-finance reform, groups like Common Cause, as people to support in stripping the pelf from politics.
Item No. 4 of Huffington’s Manifesto on her OverthrowTheGov website lays it out pretty clearly: “Support campaign finance reform. Push for public financing of campaigns, free TV time for qualified candidates, shorter campaigns and a ban on ‘soft money.'”
Huffington wants the people to take back their government – by which she really means have it operate with a center-left political agenda and not benefit rich guys. But Huffington is missing something here about the hows and whys of politics.
“The modern Western tradition treats government as a cornucopia, an inexhaustible source of everything that people might need,” explains James L. Payne in the February 1994 cover story for Reason. “Government has a bulging treasury of hundreds of billions that it showers in subsidies in every direction.”
A point which campaign-finance-reform junkies completely misunderstand is the connection between all this loot and the government’s to-do list.
As government expanded its job description in 1960s, a corresponding expansion of lobbyists occurred. With more federal dollars and programs becoming available, more people showed up with open hands – and still more with open mouths, hollering, “Where’s mine?”
As Jonathan Rauch points out in “Government’s End,” these were not, and are not, the Mr. Bigs of the world. Government’s expansion in the last 40-odd years was fueled not just by corporate fat cats for the benefit of corporate fat cats, as we are told with all the subtle and delicate repetition of a broken record.
Groups rallying under the banners of Social Security, Medicare, the environment, subsidized-housing, unions, expanded education budgets, agriculture, the arts, science (think stem-cell research controversy), welfare, small businesses and others are mostly small-fries who’ve joined together to pool their resources, bolster their clout and present a more unified voice when walking up to the congressional soup pot like Oliver to ask for more.
Lobbyists exist because government has power and money for which to lobby. Campaign-finance reform won’t change that. The power and money will still be in the hands of the politicos, and the hungry lobbyists will find ways to vault over, squirm in between or swerve around the obstacles placed before them.
As long as government has soup, the orphans (and everyone else) will clamor at the cauldron.
While favoring experimentation with money reforms, Rauch readily admits that “since the early 1970s, at least a half dozen political-finance reforms and lobbying laws have been enacted, and those obviously haven’t solved Washington’s problems.” And never let escape your memory the image of Bill Clinton and Al Gore calling for more finance reforms, while being investigated for breaking existing ones.
Rauch also keenly notes that reforms should be tried statewide, as with term limits, before going national – you know, to see first if they actually work.
The direction that this debate needs to go, however, is away from politics entirely.
What so many people seem to ignore today is the role that culture plays in all of this. We have become a society overrun by government, and we’ve been enculturated to accept it as normal and proper. Politics is an extension of culture, a reflection of it. The government does everything it does because at some level it is what America wants – or at least a significant number of its citizens. It jives with their worldview.
To change that, one shouldn’t focus exclusively, or even mainly, on politics. If you have an infection below the skin, you fight the infection; you don’t simply slap a new Band-Aid on the lesion it might cause. The roots of political reform are not to be found in campaign-finance laws and limiting lobbyists. To have any lasting effect, you need to challenge and limit political power.
Over the years, government has grown and choked the life out of other societal institutions, including families, churches, local communities and markets. As such, we shouldn’t overthrow the government – essentially a political act – we should overgrow it.
The expression “overgrow the government” has its connection to the drug-reform movement, but I think its application can and should stretch well beyond to the day-to-day efforts of Americans to steer the country away from its statist trajectory. The other institutions in society need to gain ground by their members reasserting their roles, regardless of government, to the end of pushing the government back – like plants out-competing each another for more sun and soil in the garden.
Why anyone would expect to use the political process to battle politics is beyond me. Campaign-finance reform is merely the most popular and current form of this lie, advanced by incumbent politicians seeking to limit the resources of challengers.
Rauch catalogues a wide array of political-reform efforts that in the end went nowhere because they succumbed to the very system they sought to reform; just cast your mind back to the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was elected with the aim of eliminating the federal Department of Education. Instead, Ed still stands, and DeLay just voted for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, expanding federal involvement in local schools. He may say he’s sorry after the fact, but he still voted aye. Why?
“[I]t was very hard for me to vote for something that expands the department,” said DeLay, “but this is one of his [Bush’s] big agenda items.” And so the political reformer is co-opted by politics – naturally.
The American political system is geared to change little, and the more entrenched a particular government program becomes over time, the more established its interest groups, the harder it is to ever get the government to quit.
The solution is not more politicking. It’s sidestepping politics.
Principally, the idea should be to create alternatives in competing cultural institutions and work on changing the cultural and societal perceptions about the role of government in relation to those institutions, not by direct political involvement but by alternative involvement. When culture changes and workable alternatives to government exist, the shrink in the state will follow.
It’s obviously a long-term undertaking with no particular assurance of reaching the goalpost and no particular timeline upon which to reach it. But it is an endeavor worthy of any reform-minded individual.
One place to start is the classroom. To break the cycle of cultural reinforcement that promotes the state in these roles, the family needs to vigorously reassert itself as an institution by educating children either in the home or in carefully chosen private schools.
Government schools naturally reinforce the state’s role in the society, not only by practice, but by preaching, as well. So challenging the state’s monopoly in education helps lay groundwork for other institutions to compete more aggressively in other spheres: the church and community in charity, for instance.
Daunting as the task may be, the goal of political reform should be to limit the growth and existing strength of the state, and the only long-term way to do that is to go beyond politics and overgrow government.