Dave Weigel reports on the inauguration of Larry Lessig's Change Congress Campaign:
The most interesting part, so far, has been Lessig's argument to conservatives for why we need public financing. First, the idea he semi-endorsed is not full public campaign finance. It is public financing for incumbents, an idea he credits to Paul Begala and James Carville. Incumbents would be prohibited from raising any money, at all, period. Their funds will come from the U.S. Treasury and be a function of how much their opponents raise. If Challenger Jones raises $1 million, Congressman Smith gets a check for $800,000.
Why should conservatives and libertarians support this, given that Lessig accepts a $2 billion estimate of the cost? "Why is government so big?" Lessig asks, rhetorically. "Because Congressmen must get elected. The insidious relationship between the desire to regulate and the need for congressmen to get re-elected drives the expansion of government." Compare that $2 billion cost, Lessig suggests, to a radically shrunken (and less busy) FEC and the diminishment of loopholes and handouts.
Lessig quotes Ronald Reagan on how people vote themselves benefits from the treasury. Lessig agrees with the argument, but not the reasoning. "The problem we face is the problem of crony capitalism. Not wealth pumped down, but wealth pumped up."
This actually doesn't sound like a terrible idea to me. It won't keep the money out of politics--campaign finance laws are as rocks in the stream to the money sloshing around Washington. But it might, at least, keep incumbents from spending 50% of their time trying to raise money for the next race. And it would erode the massive advantage that incumbents usually have in direct fundraising.
It will not, however, much reduce the size of government. Almost all of the money that government spends goes to entitlements, defense, or interest on the national debt, all of which are extremely popular programs. Earmarks tend to be aimed at impressing a state's voters, not its plutocrats. And regulations are as often enacted at the behest of angry but poor activist groups as of rich lobbyists.
Indeed, one thing that might worry conservatives is that this would work. That would leave activist group power--which tends to rest on their mailing list--intact, while eliminating the countervailing force from industry. I'm not siding with business here--I don't like the business lobbies any better than anyone else. But they do provide a check on activist groups which, left to their own devices, would ignore the practical questions about the consequences of their programs.