This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, which deregulated American freight…
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Happy 40th to the Staggers Rail Act, Which Deregulated and Saved the U.S. Rail Industry

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, which deregulated American freight rail and saved it from looming oblivion.

At the time of passage, the U.S. economy muddled along amid ongoing malaise, and our rail industry teetered due to decades of overly bureaucratic sclerosis.  Many other domestic U.S. industries had disappeared, and our railroads faced the same fate.  But by passing the Staggers Rail Act, Congress restored a deregulatory approach that in the 1980s allowed other U.S. industries to thrive.  No longer would government determine what services railroads could offer, their rates or their routes, instead restoring greater authority to the railroads themselves based upon cost-efficiency.

Today, U.S. rail flourishes even amid the coronavirus pandemic…[more]

October 13, 2020 • 11:09 PM

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Meet the Censors: The Harvard Law Prof Who Would Reshape American Politics Print
By Ben Boychuk
Thursday, July 23 2015
Ultimately, the public-financing project fails because it falls afoul of the 'if only' fallacy.

Meet Lawrence Lessig. A decade ago, the Harvard Law professor was a prominent legal scholar in the field of copyright, intellectual property, and privacy rights. Then he had a revelatory encounter with Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young left-wing Internet activist whose life was tragically cut short by suicide in 2013.

As Lessig told the story in a widely noticed TED talk last year, Swartz persuaded him that his academic work would come to naught as long as “there’s this fundamental corruption in the way our government works.” And so Lawrence Lessig, campaign finance crusader, was born.

At the heart of the campaign finance reform movement is the unshakable belief that that corporations and other large, unaccountable “special interests” are killing the republic. The only cure is to remove “big money” from politics, whether by limiting how much donors can give a candidate, capping how much a candidate may spend, or eliminating private donations altogether in favor of taxpayer-financed campaigns.

Lessig in his TED talk cited a poll in which 96 percent of Americans say it’s “important to reduce the influence of money in politics.” That is an incredible number that elides certain distinctions, namely: how important?

The good professor went on to say, “politicians and pundits tell you, there’s nothing we can do about this issue, Americans don’t care about it, but the reason for that is that 91 percent of Americans think there's nothing that can be done about this issue.” Another incredible number, albeit somewhat more realistic. Here the question would be: What does “nothing” mean? And could it be that “nothing” is better — or at least safer — than any of the reforms currently on offer?

At that same talk, Lessig announced the formation of a Super PAC aimed at taking on other Super PACs. The group, which kicked off on May 1 last year, is called Mayday. Its aim is to elect people to Congress who will make curbing the power of big donors and lobbyists their top priority.

Mayday so far has been a big bust. Lessig and his partner, Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, managed only to raise $10 million to aid a slate of candidates that, with a few exceptions, lost handily. Turns out, widespread grassroots interest in an anti-Super PAC Super Pac exists more in the imagination of would-be reformers than in reality.

Politico reported after November’s midterms, a fair amount of Mayday’s funding came “in the form of big six figure checks from donors like BuzzFeed co-founder John Johnson, Twitter and Tumblr investor Fred Wilson, green energy executive David Milner and Ian Simmons, the husband of Hyatt hotel heiress Liesel Pritzker Simmons.”

Well, so much for that! But Lessig is undaunted and Mayday is still seeking support, proving for the umpteenth time that a fool and his money are soon parted.

Lessig returned this week with an op-ed in the New York Times again touting the urgency of reform as a keystone of the 2016 presidential election.  Unlike many reformers, Lessig doesn’t think sundry presidential candidates’ talk of amending the Constitution is serious. “It sounds appealing, but anyone who’s serious about reform should not buy it,” he writes. “For a presidential candidate, constitutional reform is fake reform. And no candidate who talks exclusively about amending the Constitution can be considered a credible reformer.”

The key word for Lessig is exclusively. In fact, Lessig makes a lengthy case for a constitutional convention in his 2012 book, Republic Lost. And as Lessig goes on to argue in his Times op-ed, constitutional amendments—plural!—“will be essential to restoring this democracy, just as a healthy diet is essential to the recovery of a patient who has suffered a heart attack.”

But Lessig allows that even a constitutional amendment such as the one introduced every year since 2011 by Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M., to slay the hobgoblin to reformers that is Citizens United v. FEC “would not solve the problem of money’s influence in American politics.”

Lessig’s aspirations are higher. He wants nothing less than a radical transformation of the practice of American politics. “Real reform,” he writes, “will require changing the way campaigns are funded — moving from large-dollar private funding to small-dollar public funding.”

Public funding of campaigns is an old idea that liberal campaign finance reformers hold near and dear. Teddy Roosevelt, the Bull Moose progressive himself, argued in his 1907 State of the Union, “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” More than a century of campaign finance laws later, Lessig is making the identical case.

Lessig suggests public campaign financing could be accomplished by amending the tax code to offer rebates for political contributions, perhaps along the lines of the charitable contributions deduction. He’s also favorable to the public financing scheme suggested by U.S. Representative John Sarbanes, D-Md., that would have the government provide a nine-to-one match to candidates who agree to accept only small donations.

Ultimately, the public-financing project fails because it falls afoul of the “if only” fallacy. If only we could get big money out of politics, American democracy would be restored to its former luster. If only we could limit how much money independent groups spend on political campaigns, our elections would be much cleaner. If only we could amend the Constitution to undo decades of Supreme Court decisions we don’t like, politics would be free from — or at least much less beholden to — the scourge of special interests. And so on.

Would a small tax rebate encourage more individuals to give a couple of hundred dollars to a candidate? Maybe. But that assumes many more voters would be engaged enough to make writing the check worthwhile. It also doesn’t take account of the fact that the groups that already exist to promote a cause or an interest — political action committees, unions, citizens groups, trade associations, and the like — would still have a vast advantage in terms of expertise and organization.

Unless, of course, you could ban those groups or regulate them into submission through a constitutional amendment.

When you cut through the lofty language about weeding out corruption and purifying democracy, you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that making politics safe for democracy requires a great deal more coercion and quite a bit less freedom than the Lawrence Lessigs of the world let on.

Question of the Week   
Which one of the following individuals laid the ‘Golden Spike’ joining the Eastern and Western U.S. railroad lines to create the Transcontinental Railway?
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Quote of the Day   
"President Trump's recent executive order laying out his 'America-First Healthcare Plan' makes clear his continued commitment to the long-standing, bipartisan consensus that we should protect people with preexisting conditions. Unfortunately, the previous administration's attempt to make good on that consensus -- Obamacare -- has failed to deliver on its promises.Contrary to the prevailing media narrative…[more]
—Seema Verma, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator
— Seema Verma, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator
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Do you believe you will be better off over the next four years with Joe Biden as president or with Donald Trump as president?