Campaign Finance Reform, Censorship and Michael Moore

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I guess it almost goes without saying that I enjoyed Fahrenheit 9/11. Like many libertarians, I considered it, on balance, a fantastic blow against the Bush administration. Though the movie might focus on some things too much, and others not enough, it gets the point across in a way that is desperately needed in this fragile time in American history, and in a way that true patriots should applaud.

A couple months ago, Michael Moore complained that Disney was "censoring" his film, by refusing to distribute it. Of course, we libertarians knew that this was not censorship, but rather a contractual decision that is the right of the Disney Corporation to make. We also knew Moore would get his movie out one way or another. I was a bit sympathetic to the claim that Disney only decided to forego on the inevitable box office smash so as to cozy up to Jeb Bush in Florida, where Disney World is located, for tax breaks or other government favoritism. Moore’s leftist friends should have seen this as all the more reason to have a free market, but I doubt many of them did.

What many liberals might find curious, however, is how the Federal Election Commission may forbid Moore from advertising his film on radio or television. Since it criticizes the Bush administration, it may just fall under the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill. Not ironically, a conservative "soft money" group is pushing for the ban.

"Excuse me?" wonders a liberal. "But this is a free speech issue!"

For years, liberals have demonstrated a near religious devotion to the cause of "cleaning up elections" with campaign finance reform, the wondrous panacea that would finally rescue our great country from corruption in politics.

And as skeptical and downright cynical the American Left has become of the Bush administration — and rightly so — so many liberals, who might have even considered the possibility that his Prescription Drug subsidy was corporate welfare in disguise, navely believed that when Congress passed, and Bush signed, the McCain-Feingold bill, the politicians were effectively acting against their own unethical inclinations.

How anyone could believe that corrupt politicians could or would legislate away their own corruption is completely beyond me.

Well, at least now the American Left is starting to see the evils of campaign finance reform. In years past, no matter how intelligently or patiently we attempted to point out to them that the First Amendment itself was at stake, they would argue back that we libertarians were actually defending the right of corporations to bribe Senators so they could poison our water and sell unsafe cars.

But now they may finally begin to see the obvious. The Presidency and Congress need no help in being institutions of graft and favoritism. This is not the nature of unregulated campaigning, but rather of the awesome power the government wields. Any time the federal government is spending two trillion dollars a year, we can all assume some of it is going to so-called "private interests." Indeed, all of it is, seeing as though every dollar ends up in the hands of a private individual.

And of course, those with the most influence in society and business usually have the most sway in government policy. The liberals thought they could change this by adding yet another type of power to the arsenal of the federal government — the power to tell us how much we can give to political campaigns, and even what we can say about candidates in nonpartisan literature and media.

If Congress banned campaign donations altogether, a ludicrous proposal that some liberals still embrace, George W. Bush would stand to benefit. Whether or not America has full "public financing" of elections — whereby the government forces taxpayers to fund messages they despise — the president always has the advantage of the Bully Pulpit. When he gives a press conference, or a speech, or an interview, the socialistic corporate media is always happy to give him airtime. He’s our president, after all, and he can use that position to get any message to the voters that he wants to at any time, and under any conditions he may prefer.

John Kerry may have a harder time, but as a Democrat in a de facto single party state — with two factions called Republican and Democrat — Kerry also has far more free campaign coverage than third parties, or any one else, could ever hope to purchase.

In a step in the totalitarian direction of nationalizing campaigns completely, Congress passed McCain-Feingold, and Bush happily signed it, likely knowing that it would pose no threat whatsoever to their imperial reign of war and collectivism over the American people and the world.

Michael Moore, a millionaire but no elite politician, has not the political advantage of those in power. Only with his talent and his hard work at his disposal, he must labor within the framework of the market to convey his message and to earn his living. Moore, as much as I may disagree with many of his insights into economics, is a much better hero for the market than any president of recent memory. He may espouse socialism, but he practices capitalism, even as his Republican enemies do just the opposite. He is an exemplar of the American Dream, and of what can be achieved in a free market of ideas and cinema. And certainly, the overwhelming popularity of his recent slam against Bush, and his corresponding financial success, speak as well of a shift in the national political climate as they do of his talents and the wonders of the marketplace.

And so the Federal Elections Commission, the type of agency you would expect to see in the Soviet Union, may want to shut him up. It might not stop his movie, but it aims to limit Moore’s reach and effectiveness. The Bush administration can confiscate our wealth, steal from future generations with deficit spending, destroy our purchasing power, search and detain us at whim, and even bomb the smithereens out of poor, defenseless villages of starving foreigners who never did a solitary thing to hurt Americans. And yet when Michael Moore tries to expose the lies and violence of the administration, his voice can be muted, here in our nominally free country. To disrupt and snuff out human lives is the unqualified authority of the president, and yet to speak critically of him is a regulated activity for which common Americans can be fined or imprisoned.

Censorship has always been a favorite tool of centralist presidents. John Adams with his Alien and Sedition Acts, Abraham Lincoln with his newspaper shutdowns, Woodrow Wilson with his Espionage Act, and Franklin Roosevelt with his earnestly titled Office of Censorship — it goes back quite a while in our country’s history.

But liberals wanted to believe that the power of the state could be harnessed to temper its abuses. They wanted to trust that Washington, D.C., could regulate away its own sins. And so they believed in the great salvation of campaign finance reform, even if they felt a bit puzzled when the ACLU opposed McCain-Feingold while their mortal enemy Bush signed it.

I hope they won’t be fooled again. It’s hard to tell how much more benevolent censorship it will take before the Left comes around to oppose all kinds of restrictions on political speech, and before they see the folly in trusting the government to protect the people from its own intrinsic destructiveness.

It’s hard to tell how many more laws will be enacted before any criticism of the Mighty State is punished as treason, and nationalism will once again brutalize the beautiful principle of free speech to the extent that it did during the Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt II administrations. By that time, it may be too late to speak out.

In times of crisis and massive government expansion, the freedom of speech is at most risk and is never more important. If there were ever a time for liberals to wake up, to reverse their foolish position and admit they were wrong, this is it.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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