19 July, 2010

Distributism and Campaign Finance Reform

This article was originally published by
The Distributist Review on 19 July, 2010

It’s campaign time again in the US. The issue of how political campaigns are financed has become a popular topic in recent years, with both of the major parties accusing each other of bad practice. Everyone knows that the ability to fund political campaigns has a direct influence on political policies. Our constitutional republic is supposed to act in the interests of the several states and the people, not those of corporations, union leaders, or other groups. However, as John M├ędaille says, we really live in a republic of PACs. As long as organizations with large bank rolls can exert influence on our government’s policies, putting their interests over those of the people, we will remain a plutocracy.

Distributists believe economic freedom is a key component to individual freedom and justice, and widely distributed ownership of productive property is essential to economic freedom. Establishing economic freedom requires making changes to the laws and policies that give preferential treatment to the big business over the small, or otherwise inhibit the widely distributed ownership of productive property. Large corporations and organizations currently use their economic power to influence government to ensure their continued control over capital. Can Distributism be applied to limit plutocracy while still allowing the people to effectively organize together to influence the government? I believe the answer is yes.

One aspect of Distributism is subsidiarity; whatever can be done by, and is proper to the smaller element of society ought not be done by the larger. By decentralizing the things that are currently being done or regulated by our federal and state governments, the need for PACs will be eliminated. However, we are a long way from that ideal. We must therefore determine what first steps must be taken to protect the common good and work toward economic justice from where we are now. This is what I hope to address here. The following does not represent an ideal, but a proposed intermediary state.

Government is supposed to protect the common good, however, as long as corporations and organizations with large bank accounts can pressure politicians to protect their own interests, the common good will not be served. PACs exist to represent their members’ interests to the government. I do not go as far as to say that no businesses should be able to bring their concerns to the government, but there is an inherent injustice when, for example, small farmers have to compete with huge farming corporations with equally huge bank balances. We have already seen the results of this. Small farms have been declining. This is not because they cannot compete with large farms in their local markets. Government regulations imposed at the behest of large farms makes it very difficult for the small farms to survive. This can happen in any sector of society, and has been going on for a long time.

I believe a good first step in correcting this injustice is to prohibit businesses from making financial contributions to campaigns and political causes. They could certainly bring their concerns to the government, but the corrupting influence of their large bank accounts should not be a factor in what the politicians decide. There should be no limit to how much an individual citizen can contribute. What right does the government have, or do we have, to tell someone that they can only support a cause “so much?” What if a law or policy is harmful to a sector of business? Then the businesses and citizens can bring their concerns to the government, and citizens can contribute to campaigns individually or through PACs to get the law or policy changed.

The reason for prohibiting businesses from making financial contributions is that, in our current Capitalist system, economic wealth is heavily concentrated in a relatively small number of very large organizations. This skews the balance against that of the common man. However, it is also natural that people band together in a common cause. Since our centralized governments, at both the federal and state level, do many things that should be handled at a more local level, the citizens need to be able to collectively lobby these levels of government to make needed changes. (Hopefully, to eventually stop the broader levels of government from doing what is more proper for the local level and the family.)

Therefore, I see a continued need for PACs until the governments operate according to the principle of subsidiarity. However, PACs have sometimes misrepresented the views of their members. For example, polls in recent years have shown that a significant number of union members disagree with some of the causes and campaigns to which their unions have made substantial contributions. These unions claim to represent the interests of their large memberships, but they actually only represent a portion of that membership. In fact, the union leaders seem to feel that they understand what is best for their members better than the members themselves. The ability to misrepresent the views of members needs to be taken away from political groups.

The reason PACs can misrepresent members is because the members make contributions directly to the PAC. This consolidates the economic power of the individuals and transfers it to the PAC. What if the law was changed so that PACs cannot make direct contributions to political campaigns? Members would instead write checks directly to the campaign and give them to the PAC, who would deliver the checks to the campaign. Not only would it prevent PACs from misrepresenting the views of their members, but it would also more accurately show how many members support the PACs cause.

I believe that these changes represent an important first step in reducing the corrupting influence that the consolidation of capital has had on our government and sets the stage for introducing the principle of subsidiarity to our society.

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