If stopping the selling of favors in Washington is the goal,
why does no one demand that we simply enforce the laws that make
such action illegal? After all, we combat police corruption by
prosecuting officers who take kickbacks to overlook crimes. We
combat judicial corruption by prosecuting judges who accept bribes
in exchange for making unjust rulings. Why not similarly go after
congressmen who trade legislative decisions for campaign contributions?
Because the depressing fact is that most of the dispensing
of favors, and punishments, is done “within” the
law. Unlike the police or judges, congressmen (and many other
officials) have legally acquired arbitrary power. They routinely
make decisions that are governed, not by objective fact or
principle, but by subjective preference.
Suppose that Congress is considering “The Pristine Nature
Act,” which would close vast tracts of private land to
logging and commercial development. A few timber companies
argue that such restrictions on their property would be unfair
hurt their profits. The local homeowners association supports
the bill, because it would allow residents to maintain their
traditional, bucolic lifestyle. And environmentalists clamor
that the trees must be protected from mankind.
What basis should a congressman use in making his decision?
The common answer is that he should do whatever furthers the “public
interest.” But which parties count as the “public” and
so gain the privilege of having their interests advanced? The
timber companies? The neighboring residents? The environmentalists?
The trees? The people who would have lived in the houses that
would have been built with the timber that would have been
harvested? Each is as plausible as the other.
In cases like this, which are endless, the nonobjective standard
of the “public interest” justifies any decision.
This really means: there is no guiding principle, there is only
expediency. A congressmen simply latches on to whatever arguments
he finds convenient. The presence or absence of campaign contributions
from an affected party is thus as “convincing” a
factor as anything else. In fact, this is the essence of lobbying-donating
money to an official so that the giver can be granted the magical
title of “the public.”
This kind of arbitrary power—not money—is the fundamental
source of influence peddling in Washington. And a true opponent
of government corruption would seek to restore the system that
was created precisely to eliminate such power: the American system
of individual rights. He would advocate the principle that the
rights of the individual, including property rights and freedom
of speech, are inalienable, and that no invocation of the “public
interest” can justify their abrogation. He would realize
that the indefinable rule of the “public interest” is
what gives government officials unlimited power. He would see
that only a severely limited government—limited by the
standard of individual rights—has no arbitrary powers
to exercise and to sell.
The proposed campaign-finance reforms, however, target not
this power but its principal victims—the people who pay “protection
money” to government officials.
Productive businesses today have a gun permanently pointed
at their heads—by Washington. They live in constant fear that
Congress will pass legislation, in the name of the “public
interest,” that can cripple or destroy them. In self-defense,
to retain some vestige of control over their fate, they make
political contributions to keep the government at bay. They don’t
want special favors—they simply want not to be regulated,
not to have their property confiscated, not to be denied permission
to exist. By permitting restrictions on their contributions,
the Supreme Court in effect declares: “You, the victim
of arbitrary force, will now have virtually no say over your
future. You, who want to reduce the power of the state and to
fight the cause of government corruption, are to be silenced—in
the name of fighting government corruption.” This is
unjust and absurd.
True, there are those who make contributions not to keep what
they have earned, but to receive unearned benefits. But here
too the solution is to stop the source of those favors by reducing
the government’s capacity to do whatever it wishes in the
name of the “public interest.”
The way to end government corruption is not by further penalizing
its victims, but by removing from officials the arbitrary
power that they regularly offer up for sale to the highest
Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a resident fellow at
the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes
the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and
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