MONEY, DEMOCRACY, & RICH FOLKS
Yesterday was Labor Day, the day for the little guy. So today must be the day for the big guy, the rich guy. Alas, that is not the case, though the Left would say every day is such a day in the capitalistic badlands of America. Still, I’d like to make the case for the rich guy, at least in American politics. And that case these days is married to the issue of campaign-finance reform. The New York Times and its duly authorized representative in the Republican Party, Senator John McCain, argue daily that campaign-finance corruption is a cancer on American democracy. They believe that moneyed interests (not their phrase but clearly their thinking) distort the political process by contributing too much money to political campaigns. That’s the long and short of it, really. They may be right about the disease, but they are completely wrong about its cause and cure. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Imagine that you are a landlord with 100 tenants. Or suppose you are a successful farmer in a village of 100 failing ones. Or even imagine that you have inherited a multi-million-dollar magazine business from your parents. In a pure democracy, what tools do you have to defend your property or your interests from the desires of your neighbors? In a pure democracy, the people could simply vote to take what you have. How they choose to collect it is incidental — it could be a tax or it could be a mob — that’s a question of means, not ends. But in what so many enlightened Americans believe is the ideal society, the fruits of your labor or your parents’ labor would be subject to the whims of the crowd. In that system, short of violence, the only civilized tool a rich person would have to defend his interests would be, well, his richness. And again, short of violence, that gives him only two options. He could bribe enough people to vote his way, in effect making their interests more consonant with his own. Or, he could try to persuade people that confiscating his goods would not only be bad for him, it would be bad for everybody in the long run. The crowd has the vote and he has the argument and the means to make himself heard.
Well, thank God, we do not live in a pure democracy. In America we have individual rights and we have republican institutions which dilute the power of the people — again be they a mob or simply revenuers in FBI, ATF, or IRS garb. Our individual rights are safeguarded primarily by the courts — our most undemocratic institution by far. But the same principles apply. Bribery of the voters in a nation of 270 million is impossible for anyone (except for the government itself, which increasingly bribes every voter it can through entitlements). In the United States, the only way for the rich guys to fight off the egalitarian, leveling, and downright grabby moods of a democracy is for them to make arguments, loud arguments.
In politics, money is speech. When rich people give money to a candidate, it doesn’t go into his pocket (at least it isn’t supposed to); it goes into commercials, and mailers, and rallies, and buttons. When you try to curb the ability of rich people to make arguments, you are making the majority all the more powerful.
Of course, if the majority is right, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the majority is very, very often wrong, and in the words of James Madison, “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” (I found this quote in today’s op-ed by Justice Scalia in the Wall Street Journal. You, and your kids, should read it.) And the majority will be less and less likely to be right, if it doesn’t hear arguments against its interests.
This is a point about principle. But there is a practical aspect to this as well. The rich, often by virtue of their leisure time and institutional obligations, quite often see more distant horizons. They are more interested in long-term interests. Like the successful farmer, a rich person’s argument is more likely to be the one that is best for the village in the long run. “If you take my stuff now, what is to keep the rest of us from taking your stuff tomorrow? But if you follow my example, we will all have plenty of goodies, richly deserved goodies.” The rich man’s arguments must be about the long-term interests of everybody. If they were purely selfish they would not be persuasive. His arguments, of necessity, are about creating a society where everyone has the opportunity to reap the benefits of his efforts. On the other hand, the arguments of the mob are simply impulsive. If the mob is starving to death, the impulsive argument will win. But, short of deadly deprivation, the impulsive argument is usually foolhardy or even immoral.
In America we have enough impulsive arguments. The culture is drenched with impulsiveness. The last thing we need to do is gag the few people who make long-term arguments.
(The greatest political champion of the long-term in American politics may well be Calvin Coolidge, possibly edging out even the Gipper. He is often derided by the know-it-alls for saying “the business of America is business.” That is not quite what he said, and his meaning was certainly not what the Left has turned it into. Rather, he said, “the chief business of the American people is business.” Emphasis mine. But even this obviously true statement has always been taken out of context. He also said in the same speech: “The accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. [Rather] it is a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.”)
The campaign-finance reform proposals all work from the assumption that rich people have too much influence and that a “business” perspective is somehow immoral or suspect. The reformers are blind to the fact that all of the “problems” with the current system resulted from previous reforms (had anyone ever heard the phrase “soft money” before 1974?).
Paradoxically, these reforms don’t trust the people either. What would be so terrible about Steve Forbes paying for someone else to run for president? For some reason if he gives Jack Kemp 20 million dollars to run for president — that’s a travesty of democracy. But if he spends it on himself, that’s okay. Well, that’s not actually true. The reform camp is obviously disgusted by Forbes, but at least for now, even they have to recognize his First Amendment right to say (spend) what he pleases. But what would be so terrible if Forbes spent it on Kemp, so long as it was made known where his money was coming from?
What is needed are fewer laws and more arguments. Reforms empower newspapers to make public arguments instead of report them. “The people” don’t need a greater voice in the political process, they already have it. They’re the ones who vote.
Okay, finally, enough of you guessed what happens in, now 4 days. There were lots and lots of guesses. Most were wrong. The most popular guesses were 1) Rosh Hashanah; 2) this 9/9/99 mini-Y2K debacle I hadn’t even heard of; 3) my birthday (which I celebrated in these pages); 4) various peoples’ vacations, birthdays, wedding anniversaries; 5) my own alleged upcoming announcement of betrothal; 6) national Grandparents Day; 7) the anniversaries of various sitcoms; 8) football season’s kickoff; 9) sundry sporting events; 10) the 30th anniversary of Al Gore’s creation of the Internet.
Now, the real answer is that on September 11, 1999, I will have been writing this daily column doohickey for precisely one year. Please send checks c/o National Review, 215 Lexington Avenue, NY, NY 10016. In lieu of schmundo, you can wrack up tens of thousands of hits at the NR website. These are your only two options. Huge sums of money, or thousands of hits. You decide.
Oh, and thanks very much for putting up with me for the last year.