A Leveler's Work Is Never Done

April 02, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In l992 Susan Molinari, an incumbent Republican congresswoman from New York, defeated Sal Albanese. In l994 Mr. Albanese decided against a rematch because he concluded it could not be a fair fight -- he could not get enough campaign contributions to compete.

Now he, and some voters who say they were denied the opportunity to contribute to and vote for him, are plaintiffs in a case arguing that the Constitution, properly understood, bars all voluntary private campaign contributions. They say that equal opportunity to seek such contributions is and must ever be a chimera, and that the equal-protection clause requires that all candidates be entitled to equivalent campaign funds from the government.

In articles in Columbia and Yale law journals, two lawyers, Jamin Raskin and John Bonifaz, argue that this is just an extension of the logic of Supreme Court decisions banning poll taxes and prohibitive filing fees for candidates.

It would be a long leap for even the most exuberantly legislative judge to join the writers in saying that in this ''polarized class-based society'' the principle of one man, one vote requires treating inequalities of wealth and fund-raising abilities as akin to government-imposed burdens such as a poll tax.

It is at least strange to assert a new entitlement -- a constitutional entitlement no less -- to equality of potency in elective politics. The wonder is that Messrs. Raskin and Bonifaz stop short of finding a constitutional duty for the court somehow to iron out inequalities of political opportunities arising from differences among candidates in terms of attractiveness and articulateness.

It must be discouraging to them that the Supreme Court has held that ''the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.'' But the court, by being altogether too tolerant of attempts to fine-tune the ''fairness'' of political competition, has invited the sort of perverse inventiveness that finds in the phrase ''equal protection'' a mandate for government to enforce all sorts of equality, even to the point of stopping the voluntary contribution of private resources to support political discourse.

A clear-thinking court, revisiting the issue of government-imposed limits on campaign giving and spending, would conclude that all such limits constitute government rationing of political expression. Therefore, pending repeal of the First Amendment, the only permissible regulation of campaign financing can be written in 10 words: No cash contributions, full disclosure of the sources of contributions.

Until then there will be arguments for ending voluntary private campaign financing, and for having courts define and enforce ''all citizens being meaningfully able to run for office'' and ''all social groups being fairly represented in the ranks of candidates for public office'' and the process being ''meaningfully open to non-affluent candidates'' (Messrs. Raskin and Bonifaz favor ''campaign scholarships'' for the poor).

Such arguments illustrate the timeless tension between the pursuit of equality and the preservation of liberty. In the rough-and-tumble of the persuasion process called political campaigning, as in almost every other sphere of an open society (defenders of racial preferences, please note), the following is an iron law: Attempts to achieve by government coercion that elusive, because illusory, goal of a ''level playing field'' inevitably produce instead an exponential growth of prohibitions and regulations that shrink the individual's sphere of sovereignty.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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