The Special-Interest State . . .
John McCain is, we all agree, a hero. But does that mean he is also a great leader—the kind who should be president?
A great political leader performs three functions: He identifies a very important danger; he outlines a plan to defeat it; and he ends by embodying the solution, in such a way that his people simultaneously embrace both the person and his plan. Winston Churchill is a paradigmatic example. He identified Hitler early on as a mortal threat to the Free World, proposed war to victory as the only solution, and projected the defiance that symbolized that strategy.
Unfortunately, a virtuous man who identifies a serious danger, but proposes a drastically flawed solution to it, can do much more harm to his country than could a politician lacking in ideas or personal excellence. Herein lies the danger of a McCain presidency.
McCain has seized on a real political problem as the theme of his campaign: The government serves special interests instead of the public good. Over the last hundred years, the fed eral government has spent less and less on public goods—like defense and infrastructure—that benefit all Americans, while spending more and more on programs that benefit some Americans at the expense of others. McCain is right to insist that the special-interest state threatens our capacity for self-government. With special interests claiming so much of the budget—and distorting the regulatory process as well—the government can no longer energetically pursue the true national interest. Largely because the government has become an engine of redistribution, we have a divisive political culture in which citizens distrust government and one another.
John McCain clearly makes a superb advocate for returning government to the pursuit of the common good. He gave 22 years of his life (including five and a half as a POW) to the greatest public good the government provided in the latter half of the century—the defense of the West against Com munist totalitarianism. He emerged from that ordeal ennobled, as a symbol of true public service.
Unhappily, both on the campaign trail and in the Senate McCain consistently takes stands that would strengthen rather than dissolve the special-interest state. For example, he opposes large tax cuts—criticizing George W. Bush’s plan as too ambitious because it will eat into the government surplus. But money in the hands of the government is catnip to special interests. It mobilizes them to seek benefits from the state. In contrast, tax cuts dampen the energy of the special interests by forcing them to persuade the legislature to raise taxes so they can get their subsidies.
McCain is no doubt sincere in saying that he would resist the fiscal demands of special interests, but the raw energy of one man is simply not equal to the task. Even his own proposals for cutting pork in other senators’ states demonstrate this: They would trim our bloated budget by only a trivial amount. And even if he were to succeed in preserving the surplus, what would America gain in the long run? Any Democratic successor would spend it, just as surely as Bradley and Gore would dissipate today’s surplus with excessive social spending. The special-interest state cannot be curbed through sheer force of will, but only through government policies that systematically limit government and refocus it on the public good.
One such policy is the flat tax. Under today’s complicated code, special interests use their privileged position to gain tax breaks. While McCain has said that he has no problems with a flat tax, he has not offered any serious proposals to implement one. Moreover, his opposition to substantial tax cuts would make enactment of a flat tax infeasible. A flat tax would face howls of opposition from the special interests that would lose their preferences; their opposition can be overcome only by tax-rate cuts deep enough to energize the support of the broader population.
Even more troubling than McCain’s position on taxes was his decision to sponsor a bill raising cigarette taxes as part of the proposed tobacco settlement. His legislation would have been a disaster, funding a whole Christmas tree of special-interest projects and leaving only a relatively small part of the proceeds to improve the health of smokers. The predominantly low-income smokers are the ones who would pay the most, in higher taxes. The bill was, therefore, a classic example of special-interest legislation, aiding groups with political leverage at the expense of the proclaimed beneficiaries.
But even worse, the bill would have rewarded the trial lawyers—perhaps the most dangerous and powerful special interest in America today. Its original version would have assured the trial attorneys billions of dollars in fees, which they then could have used to finance attacks on other industries. (McCain voted for an amendment to limit trial- lawyers’ fees to $4,000 an hour, but he appeared to be determined to proceed with his bill, regardless of the amendment’s success.) In any event, legislative ratification of such a huge tort settlement would have encouraged trial lawyers to use the tort system as a battering ram for further raids on enterprises that the Left dislikes. The gun industry and HMOs have already been subsequent targets.
The governmental structure that best serves the common good—by securing our liberty and property from depredation—is the rule of law. It is a mark of how far one special interest—lawyers—has degraded our institutions that tort law now maintains a class of modern Visigoths with license to plunder. A candidate dedicated to making the government once again an instrument for the public interest should not be endorsing these assaults, but proposing wholesale reform to restore law to its proper role.
McCain has also recommended expanding federal power in other ways that would ultimately help special interests. He has sponsored a "passenger bill of rights" that would impose a variety of new regulations on airline service. Anyone who has endured poor treatment on airplanes sympathizes with McCain’s objective, but his solution, once again, is fundamentally mistaken. However reasonable his particular requirements, the principle of federal management of passenger comfort would lead to regulation in the interest of the airlines and their employees, rather than that of the public. Airlines and their unions simply have greater incentives than the public to monitor the creation of such regulations. The better way to improve service is to increase competition, by eliminating the regulations that have made it harder to create new airlines and airports. Deregulation rather than reregulation must be the first impulse of a candidate who would restrain special interests.
Of course, at the center of McCain’s crusade against special interests have been his famous proposals for increased government regulation of campaign finance. His bills would restrict contributions to political parties and limit issue advertising before elections. The First Amendment defects of these regulations are well known; but they would also increase the power of special interests. First, they would restrain ordinary citizens from contributing their money to causes and candidates they support—but they would not limit academics, journalists, and pundits of all kinds from disseminating their political views in the course of their work. Perversely, McCain’s proposals would further empower the left-leaning groups who already enjoy disproportionate influence on the political process. Moreover, his proposals would still allow unions to conduct expensive campaigns to publicize such liberal ideas, thereby maintaining a lasting barrier to a successful conservative agenda.
Second, campaign-finance reform would permit legislators to write the rules that directly affect their chances for reelection. Thus, the principle of pervasive campaign regulation ultimately would help the special interest our Founders feared most—the rulers themselves—to insulate themselves from popular judgment.
Taken together, McCain’s ideas demonstrate a systematic flaw in the politics of personal heroism. It is not surprising that a man of action believes that he can, by his own edicts and determination, harness government for the common good. But—without wartime’s heightened sense of shared purpose—his efforts will be subverted by the huge variety of special interests that will use their greater influence to turn these edicts to their own advantage. In a time of peace and prosperity, the solution to special interests is more subtle: a small er government, to reduce the incentive of special interests to exercise influence; and a reinvigoration of structural re straints, like federalism, to recreate a market for governance and thus reorient public policy toward the common interest.
This is not the first time that a Republican of valor has mistakenly embraced muscular federal governance as a solution to the problem of special interests. At the beginning of the last century, Teddy Roosevelt decided to invigorate government, to try to constrain the power of the moneyed trusts that he believed were fostering monopolies in business and corruption in government. Instead of curbing monopolies and other special interests by lowering tariffs and reinvigorating competitive federalism, Roosevelt and his fellow progressive Republicans introduced the federal income tax and began the construction of a huge federal bureaucracy. The long-term result has been the huge growth of the special-interest state of which McCain complains today. Sadly, McCain’s ideas—like those of his personal hero—would exacerbate the very evils that he would like to vanquish. They would lead us to another century of excessive government, ruled by special interests.