by Rod D. Martin
February 17, 2016

Donald Trump has made a lot of hay with his line that “I can’t be bought,” a function of his self-funding of his campaign. It’s a good line, and his willingness to spend his own money in the pursuit of public service is certainly admirable.

Even so, the necessary implication of Trump’s schtick (and to be clear, Trump isn’t just implying anything), is that anyone who takes a contribution is thereby bought and paid for. And however politically convenient that may be, it’s both false and dangerous.

Now it’s certainly true that some lobbyists are corrupt, that some PACs are corrupt, that some candidates are corrupt. But if we take this to its logical conclusion we quickly see the problem. Your church takes money. Your favorite charity takes money. Does this mean they are “owned”? Maybe. But in an age of growing transparency, with search tools in everyone’s hands, filing and disclosure requirements and donor’s own healthy skepticism, it gets harder every year to be corrupt, at least for very long.

Perhaps more to the point, is Donald Trump going to fund your church’s budget? Probably not. People banding together to do something worthwhile is not corruption: it’s civic responsibility and charitable goodwill. Labeling it something sinister – as the left never tires of doing, in pursuit of its socialist agenda – is corrosive of civilization.

Likewise, does a candidate who accepts contributions (which is as nearly all of them, with a handful of notable exceptions) necessarily corrupt himself? I hardly think so: I’ve seen politicians go against their contributors all my life, which was one of the bitterest complaints against Mike Huckabee in Arkansas (I note this because I served in his administration). Contributions did bring a certain amount of access – you tend to have meetings with those who support you, or at least see them at fundraisers – but nowhere near the influence some contributors expected (which is not to say those contributors weren’t sometimes in the right with regard to policy).

I have rarely seen this work otherwise with other politicians, and when I have, prison sentences frequently followed.

Let’s look at this from the other direction. If we buy into the idea — explicitly rejected by brilliant minds like Antonin Scalia — that political money necessarily corrupts, then surely we must abolish it (and all other contributions with it), and we must demand that the state finance all elections. There are over 500,000 political offices in this country, and nowhere near that many billionaires. Ergo, state financing.

But wait. Three things have to happen if we want to go that route.

First, we have to abolish self-financing too (because it would be grossly unfair to allow Donald Trump to self-finance beyond the legally mandated resources given to his opponents). The Equal Protection Clause would necessarily require, if contributions are abolished, that Trump put his pocketbook away; and now, one of the things people most like about him is gone.

Second, we have to trust the government. And we know what happens when we do that: Obama’s IRS has done everything in its power to subvert conservative groups and prevent them from operating during elections, quite against the law and quite without remedy. The state has interests too, and a monopoly on force: if it chooses to be corrupt, the abolition of private contributions would in some ways be more devastating to liberty than the confiscation of firearms.

And then third, that Equal Protection Clause again. Contributions create a sort of free market in candidates: those who can gain widespread support thrive, those who can’t don’t. This winnows the field. But in a system where we eliminate this crucial component of First Amendment speech, 14th Amendment equal protection will require either that the state finance every candidate — and I do mean every, from the Nazis to the Flat Earthers — equally; or if not, set up some kind of arbitrary and easily manipulated system of thresholds, like that which the networks have used to control which Presidential candidates may and may not debate this year.

No, that certainly won’t be corrupt at all.

Demonizing voluntary association, political speech and the cash that makes those things possible cannot help but lead you down some very bad roads. Of course people are fallen and they all fall short of the glory of God. But this does not mean that a free, transparent system cannot guard against most corruption; and indeed, it does far better than the more, ahem, supervised systems elsewhere in the world.

Indeed, if anything, the trend has been extremely positive this year. The internet has enabled and inspired candidates to wean themselves off the major donors. Late last year, Jeb Bush’s ratio of large donor cash to small donor cash was a staggering 15:1. His brother’s 16 years ago – when online political fundraising was miniscule at best – was 7:1. But Ted Cruz’s was a virtually unprecedented 1:1.6. Ben Carson’s was downright staggering, at almost 1:15, as was Bernie Sanders’. Indeed, none of the three could possibly have been competitive without that massive small donor cash, which is to say, in no previous election could they have competed at all.

That’s absolutely amazing. It represents an incredible democratization of our politics. It’s good for us as a people, as more and more exercise their civic responsibilities and involve themselves in the process. And it’s a very sound barometer of who really has support from the people vs. who is really just backed by insiders.

Oh, and Trump’s ratio? 1:0. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not an unalloyed positive either.