Monday, December 31, 2007

Democracy and State Responsibility

The post below on state sponsored health care got me thinking about the general role of the state in a democracy. As with health care, I've been a staunch proponent of public financing of campaigns, the idea being, of course, that such a system would remove the corrupting influence of money.

However - I've been reading Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Journals - 1952-2000 - and let me tell you this guy is one of the most insightful historians I've ever read - and strangely enough, a comment he made is making me rethink my position on public financing of campaigns - and the state's role in general. He said the following:
Classical socialism envisaged state ownership of the means of production and distribution. How could this be compatible with democracy? For, if the state owns everything, where can opposition to the state find breathing space? Where can it find resources? How can it survive? And without opposition, how can there be democracy? It has always seemed to me that a democracy has a fundamental structural requirement: the opposition must have a base independent of the state. That means the state can't own everything, and that classical socialism and democracy are incompatible. [Schlesinger, A., Journals 1952-2000, pp. 677-678.]

[It's worth noting he goes on to point out that FDR's New Deal was quite different than classical socialism - that it is a "mixed-economy-cum-welfare state", whatever that means.]

But this got me thinking about public campaign finance reform -- if the state ultimately controls the means of financing a campaign, does it not follow that the state can also selectively preclude opposition candidates from receiving funds to run a campaign? There's something to be said about keeping such things outside the purview of the state. I realize that there are lots of "objective" standards and requirements that can be layered into any process, but keep in mind that we supposedly have an objective way of counting votes in each state! Yet the state level Secretary of State is a partisan office; remember Katherine Harris in 2000, and the voting problems in Ohio in both 2000 and 2004, or the gerrymander disaster in Texas overseen by Tom Delay. It is not far fetched to think that public financing would be influenced or overseen by partisan offices. "Good" when Democrats are in, "bad" when Republicans are in.

I'm interested then - how would one effectively implement a public campaign system that would be resistant to these risks? Is it better to keep the current system, where at some minimum level, corporations, labor unions, rich people are open to at least some influence by their fellow citizens - but at the risk of granting these entities a disproportionate amount of influence over our policies? Or better to put it into the hands of government, where such influences may be reduced, but then we risk a system that might be manipulated by those in power to keep opposition candidates out of a race?

3 comments:

Urbanpink said...

In my optimistic mind about the policies I've come to support (-:, I envision a public finance system that requires eligible candidates to simply generate a public showing of support (gathering many signatures, and yes, this still benefits the rich but doesn't exclude the hard working poor); and pass something like a civil exam that may include a criminal background check. This is probably more than we require today! But after those fairly stringent requirements the candidate should receive a generous, state funded amount for direct mailing, a website, some TV spots (equally and fairly distributed among candidates), and depending on the size of the region, a travel budget. What else should they need?

Vigilante said...

Some good thinking went into this, Schmog. I'm going to start calling you 'Lawman'.

Vigilante said...

Happier New Year.sk