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Beware of “Reform”

March 22, 2001

Lovers of liberty are instinctively — and rightly — suspicious of the word reform. In our time it usually means an increase in the power of the political over the private.

So it is with “campaign finance reform,” by which the megastate — the federal government — would limit the right of opposition to the state. Advocates of this supposed reform, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, argue that money plays too large a part in our elections. So it does. But the money the “reformers” want to restrict is private money, as distinct from the money spent by the government itself.

Individual donations to candidates are already limited to $1000, while the government — the incumbents — spends trillions of dollars, most of them for the purpose of making voters dependent on the state. Now the incumbents want to increase their natural advantages over challengers by cracking down on “soft” money and political advertising.

Not only is this an abridgement of “the freedom of speech [and] of the press,” which the First Amendment plainly forbids Congress to enact; it’s also a sinister attack on the basic republican principle that citizens must be free to oppose, and replace, those who hold power over them. The rulers are trying to set new and difficult hurdles for the ruled. They want the monstrosity of government-controlled opposition — which amounts to no opposition.

In our system, the real “fat cats” are not challengers, however well-funded, but incumbents. They enjoy numberless perks of office: free publicity, access to public money, the ability to distribute pork and other favors, the franking privilege, potent connections, and of course a natural attraction for lobbyists. And these are only the legal advantages. Bill Clinton has shown us how they may be extralegally enhanced.

Nevertheless, these fat cats feel victimized. They feel the system is rigged against them as long as it permits challengers to use private money as an equalizing factor. So they naturally want to “reform” that factor out of the picture.

Life is so unfair to incumbents. Remember how Bob Dole cried “Foul!” in 1996 when Steve Forbes used his personal fortune to publicize Dole’s long voting record? Though that record was available to anyone who cared to look, Dole felt that it was between him and his Maker, and he was outraged that Forbes would be low enough to spend money to broadcast it to the voters.

The news media, natural allies of incumbents, joined Dole in decrying Forbes’s “negative campaigning.” Clearly, if ever a situation called for “reform” — defined as protecting the interests of those already in power — this one did. Freedom to oppose the powers that be is fine, as long as it doesn’t get out of control. That’s where “campaign finance reform” comes in.

[Breaker quote: 
Government-controlled opposition]Apart from the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, we owe none of our basic freedoms to the U.S. Government. Those freedoms date from earlier times; some derive from Anglo-Saxon law, and many were incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. But since then, over more than two centuries, the federal government has been gradually constricting our freedoms. If they hadn’t existed already, they would never have originated with our rulers.

Would Abraham Lincoln, venerated as the Great Emancipator, have created the right of habeas corpus? He violated it shamelessly. Would he have created the rights of political opposition or of free speech and free press? He arbitrarily arrested thousands of dissenters and shut down hundreds of newspapers. He also arrested state legislators and congressmen, and even issued an order for the arrest of the Chief Justice of the United States, whose only “crime” was ruling that Lincoln had acted illegally.

Later presidents, abetted by Congress, begot the mammoth welfare-warfare state, in defiance of the Constitution, and imposed taxes and regulations that would have made the federal government unrecognizable to the Framers. Which of our freedoms do we owe to Franklin Roosevelt, who, among many other crimes, incarcerated all citizens of Japanese descent?

Even the honorable term civil rights has been perverted to mean the state’s power to abridge freedom of association. It now represents less liberty, not more; more government, not less.

Many of our freedoms have been strangled in the name of “reform.” John McCain belongs to a sorry American tradition.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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