How to Achieve Real Campaign Finance Reform: Have a Government That Can’t Sell “Public Interest” Favors


Congress is once again addressing the issue of campaign finance reform — and no wonder. The American public has become increasingly disgusted by the unprincipled manner in which our legislative process is conducted. The process, in essence, consists of swarms of lobbyists descending like locusts on Washington, demanding special favors in return for campaign contributions. “Wealthy special-interest groups,” and the money they wield, are accused of being the ultimate culprits in this mess, and, it is asserted, Congress must rein them in.

Such reform cannot and will not work, because it targets the wrong culprit. “Moneyed interests” are not the real problem; they are only symptoms of a deeper cause. The corruption is caused not by material wealth but by spiritual poverty. The root cause is not “bad money” but a bad idea, namely the concept of the “public interest.”

Let us see how the premise of the “public interest” operates in practice. Imagine that you are an honest, idealistic congressman just elected to office. On your first day, you are accosted by four lobbyists. The first demands a tariff increase on certain imports to “protect” his group’s industry — which, he claims, serves the public. The second lobbyist asserts that it will benefit the public if his group gets a subsidy to help its members survive in a “brutally competitive” market. The third insists that it will help the public if members of his group are given license to be the exclusive providers of a certain service. The fourth says the public will be better off if unions are made illegal in his industry. The next day, a new group of lobbyists asks you for favors. These often conflict with those demanded by the first group, but are just as fervently presented as being in the “public interest.”

How then do you decide what to do? If an auto-industry spokesman argues for import tariffs on cars to protect the jobs of hundreds of thousands of workers, and an auto-dealer association argues for no tariffs in order to give hundreds of thousands of buyers lower prices, which group, in this case, is the “public”? Both and neither. You realize that “the public” is not an actual entity but only a collection of individuals. So which individuals, in any given case, should get what they want and at whose expense? There is no way to tell — anyone can claim to be the public on any issue. In dismay you recognize that “the public interest” has no objective meaning. It is empty rhetoric.

Politics abhors a vacuum and when there are no coherent principles to guide action the void is filled by pressure-group warfare. The winner of any given battle is decided by such arbitrary factors as which group is bigger, richer, better connected (e.g., to the White House), or more attuned to the latest media hype or political tide. In practice, the principle of the “public interest” leads to a political war of all against all in which some individuals are sacrificed for the benefit of others. This mess is known as the “mixed” economy. (There are, of course, some principled lobbyists who seek, not special privileges, but simply the right to be left alone — but their pleas fall on unprincipled ears.)

All this leads to widespread cynicism and demands for “campaign finance reform” — reforms which cannot work. To think that you can eliminate the problem (the buying and selling of favors) by controlling its effects (limiting the size of contributions) is like trying to eradicate mental illness by limiting the number of beds in mental hospitals. Real campaign finance reform requires philosophical reform. We must discard the notion of the “public interest” and replace it with the proper principle: individual rights, which means the freedom of each individual to pursue his own interests as long as he does not coerce or defraud others. This means: replace the mixed economy with real capitalism — no tariffs, no subsidies, no protection from competition, no favors.

Only when Congressmen have no special favors to sell will lobbyists stop trying to buy their votes — and their souls. Property rights should have the same sacrosanct status as freedom of speech. If a modern lobbyist went to a Congressman and demanded that he get a law passed preventing people from publicly criticizing his organization, he would be laughed out of Washington. The same fate should befall lobbyists who want to limit how people use their property — and for the same fundamental reason: an individual’s right to his life.

–This editorial is copyrighted by the Ayn Rand Institute and reproduced here with permission.” Visit their MediaLink at

About Edwin A. Locke

Edwin A. Locke is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. He is author of The Prime Movers.