Mad scientists in the laboratories of democracy

March 16, 2007   •  By IFS staff
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Yesterday the Brennan Center for Justice released another in a series of studies analyzing state-level campaign finance regulation in the Midwest.  Their conclusion:  "Michigan’s campaign finance system is broken and badly in need of reform."

This conclusion should sound familiar to anyone who read the press release announcing their previous report on Illinois: "Illinois’s campaign finance system is broken and badly in need of reform."

And both of those conclusions should sound familiar to anyone who read the press release announcing their Wisconsin report: "Wisconsin’s campaign finance system is broken and badly in need of reform."

The Center has promised two more reports, covering Ohio and Minnesota.  We have a hunch about how they’ll turn out.

Luckily for these five states, and for every other state whose system is broken (presumably 45 of them), the Center has a four-part cure: lower contribution limits, greater disclosure, stricter enforcement, and public financing.  That the Center’s prescription is the same in every case doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  What is surprising is some of rhetoric used in the forward of each report:

"Throughout the last century, governments in these [Midwestern] states often led the way for the rest of the country, providing "laboratories of democracy" (in the phrase of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) that test and perfect new policies."*

We find it odd that the Brennan Center would appeal to Brandeis’s "laboratories" analogy.  Every good laboratory experiment, after all, should have a "control group," a group that is not subjected to experimentation but which is left alone for comparison.  It seems clear enough that the Center is not interested in maintaining a control group, at least not in the Midwest (or New York, for that matter, which they find to be similarly "broken").  To the Center the time for experimenting is finished and the results are in: campaign finance reform is necessary and should be enacted, identically or nearly so, everywhere.

We don’t think states in the Midwest or anywhere else should be experimenting with rights as fundamental as Free Speech.  Fortunately, to the extent that such experimentation does occur, there is a control group with which results can be compared: Virginia, the best governed state in the nation despite having no individual or corporate contribution limits.  We don’t know how the Brennan Center would explain why Virginia has managed to thrive without draconian campaign finance regulation (and we suspect they would not make the attempt), but we’re reasonably certain that they would conclude, nevertheless, that Virginia is in desperate need of reform.  After all, "reform" is always good for what ails you, if what ails you is lack of "reform."

Unlike the Brennan Center, we think that Illinoisans, Michiganders, and Wisconsinites are just as capable as Virginians of being well-governed and having robust political freedom.  And that strikes us a truly worthwhile experiment.


*Incidentally, Brandeis did not actually use the phrase "laboratories of democracy."  What he actually said (in dissent) was: "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." New State Ice, Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932).  You can read the opinion here to get a sense of type of experimentation Brandeis was contemplating.

IFS staff

IFS staff