Nobody I know thinks that there is too little special interest money in politics.
In fact, politicians and citizens complain about it all the time — although every time anybody tries to do anything about it, the money just flows around the rules.
Maybe the problem isn’t that people want to put money into politics; maybe the real problem is that it pays to put a lot of money into politics.
Individuals, lobbyists, interest groups, and candidates spend billions of dollars to influence elections and agencies for a pretty simple reason: They are trying to get government to do something, stop doing something, or not do something in the first place.
And there are a lot of “somethings” that government can or does do.
Since World War II — well after the “New Deal” began in 1933 — state and federal spending in real dollars (adjusted for inflation) has grown by 500 percent per capita.
That adds up to very real money — trillions of dollars every year, or over 40 percent of the U.S. economy.
And government spending is only a fraction of its real impact on the economy and our daily lives. Citizens and businesses spend billions of dollars and billions of hours more complying with federal and state rules, regulations, and laws.
It’s no wonder that government is the fastest and most steadily growing part of the U.S. economy. And it is also no wonder that people are willing to spend huge amounts to influence how government spends its money and makes its laws and regulations.
When so much is at stake, it would be insane for people to not try hard to influence the process in whatever way they can, if for no other reason than simple self-preservation.
And there are a lot of reasons other than self-preservation to do so. Tax breaks change business decisions and affect profits. Subsidies put more money on the bottom line. Regulations can put you — or your competitors — out of business or give you a leg up in the market. Bailouts can keep you in business when you fail in the marketplace. And laws can encourage or discourage foreign competition.
Laws can even change the labor market. Labor laws give unions more power, while business interests lobby for more immigration to drive down labor prices.
Who gets new roads, and who builds them, are decided by government. Where economic development takes place — and hence whose land is worth what — is determined by government.
These days, how much soft drink you can buy at one time is determined by some lawmaker.
That is why spending on politics is so large. If you don’t have a lobbyist on your side, you can bet somebody who doesn’t have your interests at heart does and is working against you.
Trying to limit the amount of money people can spend influencing government will never be the solution to this problem, no matter how hard you try.
First of all, it is unconstitutional to do it — we all have the right to petition our government. It is spelled out clearly in the Constitution. Secondly, even if it weren’t unconstitutional, with trillions of dollars at stake, lawyers and lobbyists would find a way around the laws. They already do every day, avoiding the current spending limits with clever schemes.
Limiting government spending and power are the only answer that can or will ever work. The less money and power government has, the less people will try to influence it.
Does that mean that government will lose some power to do “good things?” Sure it does. But we see every day that for every “good thing” that government can or does try to do, it fails miserably at many others.
Even worse, with the money and power at stake, clever people find ways to convince government to do a lot of bad things too.
This is not a prescription for abandoning government entirely. We can’t, and we would be much worse off without government, obviously. Anarchy has its own set of problems.
But we have to recognize that a government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have — and give it to somebody else.
David Strom is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.