WASHINGTON — The Jack Abramoff scandal has many individual players, but it’s also added fuel to an older and broader theme — the quest to purge politics of money. Well, at least, money provided by business. Money provided by government and foundations has largely escaped scrutiny.
Political funding has received the most attention, but the idea has now spread well beyond politics into the larger policy world. The goal is to eliminate business funding not only from politics, but from the entire intellectual world. Many major science and medical journals, for example, now impose financial disclosure requirements on their authors, stigmatizing research underwritten by business. Anti-business groups seek to bar from government advisory committees individuals who’ve consulted with business. And, as the fallout from the Abramoff scandal demonstrates, this assault has now extended to demonizing corporate support for conservative policy groups. Several think tank analysts have already been affected, losing their syndicated columns, and, in one case, their job because of past financial support from interested parties.
The underlying theory is that to allow interested parties to provide advice on public policy involves a conflict of interest. Such conflicts might lead to distortions in the “objective” advice needed for sound public policy and, thus, must be driven out of the temple. If the public interest is to be protected, special interests (or, more selectively, business-related special interests) must not be allowed to influence the process.
BUT INTEREST GROUP POLITICS is not a new phenomenon. In fact, they date back to the founding of the American republic. The Framers of the Constitution were deeply concerned over how to address competing interest groups, which they called “faction.” James Madison defined faction as:
“A number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Unlike advocates of McCain-Feingold campaign reform, the Framers were not utopian planners; they were well aware of the danger that, in Madison’s words, “unworthy candidates” might “practice with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried.” They sought a government that was able to act effectively when necessary, but that would pose only a minimal threat to the economic and civil liberties of its citizenry. The Framers’ answer was not to drive faction out of politics, but rather a plan to set faction against faction-to use ambition to counter ambition. They didn’t restrict faction; they encouraged it.
The Constitution accomplished this through its system of checks and balances, and divided and enumerated powers. Its Bill of Rights makes explicit the paramount importance of speech and other aspects of liberty. Liberty produces faction, but that’s not an undesirable by-product; it’s an essential element. As Madison put it, “it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
That approach is now under attack in the name, ironically, of protecting speech and society.
Today’s factions run from political organizations to corporations and labor unions to public interest groups having the widest imaginable range of views. Many of these public interest groups form alliances with economic entities that provide the wherewithal for them to better advance their positions.
Such alliances are unavoidable because free speech isn’t free. Someone must cover the costs of the speaker and the associated costs of seeing that the speech is disseminated. Rich speakers can cover these costs themselves. Some, like George Soros, have used that path most creatively. The revival of modern liberalism owes much to his willingness to use his vast wealth to resurrect liberal ideas after the conservative triumphs over the last few decades. Soros is an ideal example of an individual who garnered wealth as an entrepreneur and now uses that wealth to foster the viewpoints he favors, and the fortunes of those groups that espouse those viewpoints.
Other wealthy individuals — although none at this scale — have backed libertarian and conservative causes. And still other wealthy individuals have created foundations that soon become forces themselves. Many of those foundations often have strong views; some support free markets, but most advocate expanded government intervention in areas ranging from the environment to health care to labor and product regulation. With that stance, it is not surprising that many government agencies now fund “educational” efforts by various factions (bureaucrats can be empire-builders and act entrepreneurially too). The EPA, for example, has provided much funding to ensure that the public views its role as critical.
BUT THE CURRENT FLURRY OF ASSAULTS has paid little attention to special interest funding by government or individuals or foundations. Rather, recent attempts to purify the policy world have targeted conservative and free market groups. These so-called reformers overlook the labor union connections to “fair-wage” policy groups, and the trial lawyer connections to the Nader-style regulatory advocacy groups. And they overlook the left-leaning philanthropic foundations altogether. If they have their way, there will only be two legitimate funding sources left: government and foundations that support bigger government. If these are the rules of engagement in the war of ideas, then capitalism’s prospects-in the United States at least-are bleak indeed.
We should reject these skewed moral trip wires. They are not even-handed guidelines, but rather the creation of mainstream media, and their academic allies, advancing an anti-market agenda.
Note that even that media itself must be funded. After all, corporate advertisers are an important funding source for both PBS and NPR, and media stars receive hefty speaking fees before business conferences. But does anyone think that such financial links have tempered the often anti-capitalist biases of these outlets? (Why business would underwrite anti-market productions is, perhaps, a more interesting question.)p>In fact, it was on PBS that I was hit with a question on this very topic. Bill Moyers asked me:
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