“To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
Thomas Jefferson said these words roughly 200 years ago. Sadly, however, modern-day North Carolinians have been subjected to this “sinful and tyrannical” practice for the last nine years in the form of taxpayer-financed political campaigns.
Under such a system, taxpayer money is used to fund the races of candidates who have chosen to largely forgo private fundraising and adhere to pre-set spending limits.
North Carolina first introduced this system in 2002, when the legislature approved a program for state supreme court and court of appeals campaigns. In 2007, the General Assembly appropriated more than $4.5 million in taxpayer dollars to establish a public campaign finance system for certain Council of State offices. Now supporters of this system have plans to expand taxpayer-financed political campaigns to all statewide races.
Advocates for such systems have long made grandiose promises of how these plans will rid politics of special interest influence. But they conveniently ignore the chilling effects that taxpayer-funded campaign schemes have on free speech rights in North Carolina.
In short, a taxpayer-financed campaign system forces taxpayers to fund candidates who articulate views and opinions they may vehemently oppose. As Jefferson noted, there is no moral justification to forcing individuals to part with their earned property in order to finance the spread of ideas they detest.
But this serious violation of liberty is swept aside by advocates of taxpayer-funded campaigns convinced that their system will result in some utopian, special-interest free political process. We have been promised that the influence of money in politics will be a thing of the past if only we institute this system for all political campaigns.
Supporters of taxpayer-funded campaigns point to North Carolina’s experiment with the system for judicial and Council of State races as a “success” and that they have yielded “good results.” But they never define what success or good results mean. Good results for whom? And by what measure?
When the public campaign finance system for judicial races was introduced in 2002, we were promised that the program would be supported by voluntary check-offs on state tax returns along with voluntary fees from attorneys. The program proved to be unpopular. Only about 12 percent of attorneys contributed, and a dismal 6 percent of taxpayers voluntarily donated to the fund. The funds almost immediately ran dry.
Per usual when citizens refuse to voluntarily support a government program, the government resorted to force. In 2004 the legislature decided to divert taxpayer funds from the state budget into the system, and in 2006 the attorney fee was converted to a mandatory one. Some “success.”
But what about the noble cause of eliminating the influence of special interest money in politics? Taxpayer-financed campaigns fail on that count as well.
Indeed, taxpayer-funded campaigns can actually further empower special interest group influence on the campaign cycle. Because candidates must first garner a specified number of small, private donations before becoming eligible for taxpayer campaign funds, special interest organizations – like unions or other political advocacy groups – can merely direct their member lists to pony up the ten-dollar checks to their chosen candidate in order to meet the eligibility threshold. This initial small special interest group support can thus leverage hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds for their chosen candidate. Once the hand-picked candidate has access to taxpayer dollars, the special interest group can still afford to go ahead and finance campaign ads supporting their chosen candidate. The result is a system in which the hand-picked candidate benefits from both special interest money and taxpayer dollars.
And if you are naïve enough to think that candidates are not aware of, and thus beholden to, which groups helped them leverage those public funds, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. The same criticism leveled at privately-funded candidates being influenced by special interest donors still holds true to taxpayer-financed campaigns as well.
The simple truth is this: money flows toward power. If one is serious about ridding politics of special interest money, then they must advocate for reducing the amount of power held by politicians. As Jonathan Rauch put it in his book Demosclerosis: “Government’s power to reassign resources and interfere with free and mutually agreed upon exchange in the market place is the source of special interests. Limit these powers and special interests will no longer have a reason to lobby.”
Sadly, however, advocates of taxpayer-funded campaigns want to grant the political class additional power by diverting more of our tax dollars into yet another collectivization scheme. Let’s hope state lawmakers use the coming July session to free North Carolinians from this immoral infringement on our first amendment rights.