Few subjects inspire more intellectual conformity than "campaign finance reform." All "right-thinking" people "know" that election spending is "out of control," that the present system of campaign finance is corrupt and that only reactionaries block "reform." Who cares if these common beliefs are either wrong or wildly exaggerated--or that most "reforms" would do more damage to democracy than any harm they might cure? The case against "reform" is almost impossible to make, because people's minds are closed.

It is easier to think that vast flows of tainted money clog the legislative process--and frustrate the "public interest"--than to acknowledge the actual sources of division: conflicting goals (higher spending vs. lower taxes); differences over values and desirable policy (on, say, abortion or the minimum wage); legitimate rivalry among interest groups (involving, for example, parts of the computer industry); and the insecurity of politicians who avoid anything that risks unpopularity. Campaign finance serves as a respectable diversion. This is worth remembering as the Senate prepares to debate "reform."

Campaign spending is said to be "excessive" and exploding. Not really. The 1996 elections--at all levels, from city council to president--cost about $4 billion. This was one-twentieth of one percent of the national income then, $7.66 trillion. It's a small price for democracy. In 1998 winning House candidates spent an average of $675,478. After adjusting for inflation, this was 28 percent higher than in 1986--hardly an explosion. Congressional districts average slightly more than 600,000 people; spending is about $1 per person. For the Senate, the average winning candidate in 1998 spent $4,660,847; after inflation, this was only 3.9 percent higher than in 1986.

It is true that politicians devote a huge amount of time to fund-raising and that many loathe the process. The difficulty of raising money may also deter some good potential candidates from seeking office. But these problems result mostly from the 1974 post-Watergate campaign finance reform law, which hampered fund-raising by imposing tight limits on contributions. In federal elections, an individual can give only $1,000 to any candidate (per election) and $20,000 to national political parties or committees (per year). An individual's total contributions cannot exceed $25,000 a year.

After 25 years, inflation has eroded the purchasing power of these permitted contributions by about two thirds. Inevitably, politicians have invented new ways to raise money, which--given the costs of TV, direct mail, consultants, Internet sites--is essential for any campaign. Also inevitably, these new methods violate the spirit of campaign finance laws, though not the letter. "Soft money" is the latest evasion.

It obliterates contribution limits; almost anyone can give a soft money donation of any size to a political party or committee. The reason is that the activities that soft money finances--state-party voter drives and "issue" ads that don't ask people to vote for or against specific candidates--are not legally defined as "federal" election activities. Therefore, they aren't covered by federal election laws. Campaign reform advocates argue that this legal distinction makes no practical sense. On this, they are correct. But it does not follow that soft money should be banned, as the House has voted and the Senate will consider.

The trouble is that if this source of contributions is closed, new sources will emerge. The history of "campaign finance reform" is that every limit inspires new evasions. One possibility is that interest groups will finance more independent campaigns (TV ads, direct mailings) to elect or defeat targeted candidates. "Reformers" view such "issue ads" (praising or condemning candidates without telling people how to vote) as shams. And so, the next step would be to curb such advertising, even if curbs flout the First Amendment.

"Any effort to reform issue advocacy spending in connection with federal elections must strike a regulatory balance between protecting political speech and protecting the integrity of our electoral process," says one reform group. By contrast, the First Amendment says that Congress "shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." There's no mention of "regulatory balance," and if elections and "issue ads" aren't about political speech, what are they about? "Right thinking" people minimize the conflict between "campaign finance reform" and free speech, because it's inconvenient.

Their justification is the allegedly undue influence of campaign contributions on government policy. This is vastly overstated. No doubt money buys some access and favors. But the bigger the issue, the less the influence. The total size of giving and the number of donors dilute the influence of individual contributors.

Stories "proving" the opposite are often distorted. Roger Tamraz, a businessman who gave $300,000 in soft money to the Democrats, bragged about his "access" to the White House. But it did not buy him what he wanted: administration support for his pipeline project. Or consider the tobacco industry. Its big contributions (so the story goes) thwarted anti-smoking legislation. What actually happened was very different.

In June 1997 the industry and state attorneys general reached an agreement requiring companies to pay $368 billion over 25 years in return for some protection against lawsuits. A powerful industry could have persuaded Congress to approve something like the agreement. Instead, congressional committees raised the cost by about 40 percent and eliminated many legal protections. The industry then gave up and launched a $40 million ad campaign against the legislation. Its defeat probably owed less to the ads than to the bill's complexity and some Republican hostility to a huge back-door increase in the cigarette tax.

As long as we have the First Amendment, the effort to regulate elections--under the guise of "campaign finance reform"--is futile, self-defeating and undesirable. The hysteria about money's corrupting power worsens the very problem that "reformers" claim to deplore: public cynicism. But right-thinking people are oblivious to evidence or logic. They're at ease with their own respectable conformity.