Well, my week on the West Coast was immensely productive. In Palm Springs I gave a speech that was satisfactory enough that nobody stopped payment on my check. Then, I was in Seattle the day the Boeing move was announced, and shockingly enough, the innumerable hordes of skeeves, slackers, and WTO-bashers who dominate downtown Seattle took it in stride. Though a few of the drooling panhandlers were surprised by the suggestion that Seattle’s business climate was worsening.
But perhaps the most exciting news was my purchase of a new pair of sneakers made by Oakley. These laceless monstrosities look like bionic hiking slippers and the package assures me that the soles are designed to be “consumed like fuel,” so I got that going for me. But the best thing about these things isn’t what I could do with them if I were physically active, but their color. Actually, I’m talking about the name of the color: “flesh goldenrod.”
But enough catching up, I’m here to talk to you about something very serious: campaign-finance reform.
Fortunately, because I was tooling around the Pacific Northwest in my Flesh Goldenrods I got a better sense of how the debate sounds to normal folks. One side of the argument says that rich people and corporations have too much say in politics and the allegedly “bought-and-paid-for” incumbent politicians must fix the problem.
But nobody seems to say what I want them to say: “Hooray for Big Money!” Let me explain.
In a pure democracy, the little guys have the most obvious vehicle for changing public policy: the vote. There will always be more “poor” people than rich people (I put poor in quotation marks because I’m talking about comparative wealth, not real poverty. Compared with the rest of the world, poor people in America should really be labeled “least rich.”) And because the “poor” will always outnumber the rich, in a democracy they will always have enough votes to impose their will on the wealthy.
Imagine that you are a landlord with one hundred tenants or a shop owner with 100 customers. In a pure democracy, the tenants could essentially vote not to pay rent; the customers, to make the five-finger discount legal. How they choose to confiscate your stuff is irrelevant. They could do it with a mob or with a tax; the point is that they could do it.
What options does the lone landlord or businessman have? He has worked his entire life to build up an enterprise and now the mob wants to tear down the fruits of his labor. Well, he can bribe a majority of the tenants or customers to vote in line with his interests, but that would be hard since the interest in paying nothing is pretty strong. Of course he could enlist thugs and goons to enforce his will through violent means, but that’s hardly the recourse of an honest man and ultimately terrible for business.
Or, he could attempt to persuade the tenants that he provides a valuable service and that he deserves to be compensated for it. Moreover, he could persuade the crowd that the interests of everybody are served when the rights of the individual — especially the successful individual — are recognized. If the successful individual is penalized for success, then the incentive to work hard and play by the rules — or to work hard at all — will evaporate. He would need to make this case by spending a lot of money on commercials and on politicians who understand his concerns. His opponents need not spend much money at all, until, that is, enough people have been persuaded by the landlord’s arguments to make the pro-theft crowd a minority. At which point the pro-thievery folks will find it necessary to spend some money to argue their side.
Of course, we live in a constitutional republic, not a system of, in Madison’s words, “elected despotism.” Still, the dynamic holds true. Rich folks and corporations need a megaphone more than poor folks do precisely because they are by definition a minority — a minority of success. Minorities — racial, ethnic, economic, sexual, or otherwise — will always spend more money trying to persuade the majority than the majority will, because the majority doesn’t need to persuade anyone; it’s got numbers on its side. This is why, for example, Alaska — a huge state with a tiny population — has just decided to triple its lobbying budget to explain to the rest of the country why we should drill for oil in a tiny sliver of the generally desolate Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
My point is that as a general proposition the public interest is served when successful people and corporations — and states — get to make their case in political debates. To be sure, they aren’t always right (especially as the mega-rich become more liberal and big corporations trample small businesses), but they should be allowed to make the hard case without incumbent politicians making it even harder for them. It’s easy enough for the “something-must-be-done” crowd to argue for regulations on businesses and confiscatory taxes on the demonic “top one percent.” Hell, it’s always easy to persuade people to take food off of someone else’s plate.
It is much harder to make the case that society must respect the success of others. It is much harder to make the case that gratification today should be delayed so that prosperity can benefit more people tomorrow. It is much harder to argue that taxes and regulations on “big business” can hurt more people than they help. It’s hard to persuade people in, say, Seattle, that a company, let’s call it Boeing, should do what’s best for Boeing and not what’s best for Seattle. And it is very hard to argue that billionaires, even asinine ones, should be allowed to keep their money when so many people have so little.
But even though it is often hard to make these arguments, this makes them no less true. And it should be remembered that in a continental nation of 280 million people with tens of thousands of media outlets, it is increasingly hard to make an unpopular argument. And in this context, “hard” simply means “more expensive.”