Executive branch officials are limited by federal ethics regulations to a threshold of about $35 when accepting or exchanging gifts. As an army officer, I was always taught this was as much about preventing the perception on the part of the American people that officials were being bribed as it was about any lack of trust in federal officials. In my business career, we had a similar policy at Overstock.com regarding company employees accepting gifts from vendors. The problem with accepting large donations or gifts is more than mere perception. Thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions, current US campaign finance law is out of step with the principle of human psychology underlying both federal ethics rules and Overstock.com's corporate policy: when people give you a big donation, they expect something in return. We understand this at a deep level. When a candidate or elected official accepts a large donation, they understand the donor expects something in return, and they know this "quid pro quo" is wrong even if it is legal.
The Arbinger Institute, a global leadership consulting firm headquartered in Farmington, Utah, describes such behavior as "self betrayal" in its classic book Leadership and Self Deception. Once you betray your instincts in such a way, your brain actually starts to filter information to justify the self betrayal. You become less able to see the facts as they are because your own mind is now working against you. You deceive yourself. In Leadership and Self Deception, Arbinger argues that this type of self deception is at the root of much organizational dysfunction and inefficiency. Arbinger calls this state of self deception being "in the box." Self deception, particularly as it relates to campaign finance reform, is at the root of much of the conflict, dysfunction and inefficiency in our government.
People argue earnestly, for instance, that unlimited donations are necessary as an instance of free speech, citing the Constitution. But this is faulty reasoning, and it is obviously counter to what the founders intended when they protected an equal right to free speech for all Americans. Constitutionally protected free speech is a universal natural right. We each have this right equally, because of our basic humanity. This is a foundational principle of natural law doctrine, invoked in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence with the words:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."
Notice that the founders did not say that all are created equally in proportion to their disposable income. That would have been absurd then, and it is absurd now. Campaign finance restrictions are necessary to create some, albeit imperfect, basis for the fundamental equality of each of us in the eyes of our law.
In the absence of appropriate restrictions, we find members of Congress with contributions from medical device and medical services companies comprising fully one-third of total dollars from their top twenty contributors. Such lawmakers are in the box with regard to health care. They are quick to broadcast how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will increase the costs of Medicare and Medicaid, but they fail to report that the Congressional Budget Office reported the ACA, as passed in December 2009, would reduce federal deficits by $118B from 2010 through 2019. They can recite their donors' arguments about how the ACA will increase taxes and hurt corporate profit margins, but they fail to mention that the middle class has subsidized those profit margins by bearing the hidden, distributed costs of 50 million uninsured Americans for decades. They cry about the insurance mandate as an unprecedented infringement on individual liberty, with no mention of the financial responsibility mandates that have been part of automobile liability law in all 50 states for decades. Lawmakers who are in the box represent donors, and cannot represent individual citizens the way they should. All of this may happen quite innocently as a result of the self-betrayal, self-deception cycle described by the Arbinger Institute in Leadership and Self Deception. Our members of Congress and other career politicians don't have to be bad people in order to be victims of self deception.
Earnest journalists will tell us that money has always played a role in politics, and that it has always been the responsibility of citizens to bring their reason to the voting booth. But never before in the history of our republic has there been such a virulent combination of information technology and unbridled spending on political messaging. De-regulated television and radio combined with the information technology revolution have exponentially increased the power of every marketing dollar at a time when we have removed virtually all restrictions on political marketing dollars. It is no wonder more and more Americans accept the self-betraying premise that those on the other side of the political spectrum are evil or stupid, putting us in a vicious cycle where more and more voters are polarized by self-deception. The solution is clear: we must replace career politicians with career citizens--people who are not "in the box"--this November, and we must re-enact campaign finance restrictions as soon as possible.