Fight corruption with vouchers

February 03, 2002|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ORKNEY SPRINGS, Va. - Everyone agrees the Enron debacle is a huge scandal, but not everyone wants us to see what's the most important part of it.

It's not just that some corporate executives lined their pockets while deceiving their workers and stockholders. It's not just that accountants who were supposed to watch the chicken coop were in league with the foxes. The bigger scandal is that all of this was possible because our government is up for sale.

Enron bought the laws - or lack of them - that enabled it to obfuscate its transactions. The big accounting firms bought the legislative clout to block efforts to make accountants more truly independent of the firms they audit.

And the plundering of the American public interest is not just confined to this aberrant case of a company going belly up. Plenty of very successful companies buy laws that enrich them at public expense.

Enron's scandal is but a more florid version of the bigger one that allows mining, logging and ranching interests to exploit public lands while paying far below market rates, that gives polluters the power to write pollution regulations, that gives away broadcast frequencies that could have been auctioned for billions, and on and on.

The scandal is about how money buys political power. And that brings us to the issue about which the American people are said to care little: campaign finance reform.

If we do care little, we are fools. We are being robbed - big time, as the vice president would say. More than anything, we're being robbed of our form of government, based on "the consent of the governed." We're being robbed of justice.

"One person, one vote" reflects the revolutionary idea that each person is entitled to an equal say in deciding our collective destiny. This idea of justice, in turn, derives from that other revolutionary idea that we're all equal in the eyes of God. Equal voice in government also reflects the insight, articulated by James Madison in The Federalist Papers, that men are not angels. That means one group of people cannot be trusted with power over the destiny of others.

This core idea about justice requiring equality in the political realm contrasts with our sense of justice in economic life. There, "to each according to the value of his or her contribution" leads to great inequalities of wealth. No contradiction there - none, at least, unless political power is put up for sale, as it is now in America.

Those who want to be elected have far more reason now to want to please those who can write big checks than those who cannot. Our politics are thus pervaded by injustice.

The Supreme Court placed an obstacle in the way of correcting this injustice about a generation ago. In an ambiguous decision decided by the narrowest of margins, the court decided that contributing money to political causes - including campaigns - represents protected free speech.

Even if the case for equating check writing with free speech has some merit, it would be folly to allow that consideration to subvert that most fundamental right to equality in choosing our rulers. The rich and powerful already control much of the flow of ideas (as the old saying goes, the press is free for him who owns one), but "speech" that is directly involved in the election process warrants being placed in a special category in which the claims of equality are paramount.

So allow me to propose a way that equality of power can be combined with the right of citizens to support the expression of those ideas they want voiced in the election process: Let's give every registered voter a voucher that can be used only for election-related spending.

Through a computerized system, each citizen can divide that special election money among any candidates and/or interest groups he or she wants to strengthen.

This taxpayer voucher money would be the only funds that could be spent on election-related expenses. The amount of the voucher would be determined by an overall budget for the elections, perhaps matching the amount spent (adjusted for inflation) in all of the elections in the year 2000 or perhaps representing a specified and fixed tiny fraction of the gross domestic product.

The advantage of this system would be that the power of the purse would be equally distributed among all voters, thus fulfilling the justice of "one person, one vote." And the government would not be in the business of telling people to whom they can give or in telling groups how they can or cannot be involved.

All that is required to make this system work is to define election-related speech - certain kinds of advocacy of candidates and issues within a short period before an election - and to keep private money out of that process. Both are feasible tasks.

Speech would flow freely, equality would be restored, our democracy would flourish and we'd be better protected from rip-offs like the Enron affair.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

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