A reader of this column e-mailed an interesting question a few months ago: "We hear all about Richard Mellon Scaife," he wrote, "but we never hear about who funds the left. Who's bankrolling the vast left-wing conspiracy?"
It's an interesting question, and you'll probably be surprised at the answer. The oddest source of the left's money comes from the rich. The really rich. The Washington Times recently reported that the richest 1 percent of Americans give disproportionately more to Democrats than to Republicans. Republicans, on the other hand, get more money from the richest fifth of income earners.
That makes sense, when you think about it. Ted Turner can afford to support high-tax policies because he can fork over half the millions he makes every year and still have enough left over to buy the state of Oregon.
A tax cut makes more sense however, to say a family of four making $150,000, with two kids in college. Both are taxed at the highest bracket, but Ted can afford to be a little more generous in support of the way the government spends your money.
Much of the remainder of the left's financial backing comes from coercion. That is, they take money without asking for it, often from people who would rather not give it to them.
Taxes are the best example. Each time Congress creates a new government program, it gives birth to a fresh litter of Democrats. That's because each government program needs to be staffed by people who, naturally, don't want to lose their jobs. So they vote Democrat, the party most likely to continue government programs. And with the exception of certain corporate welfare and farm subsidy programs, the people who benefit from those vote Democrat too, for the same reason.
In most cases, employees of the federal government are required to join the union that represents federal employees, and pay dues. Your taxes fund it all.
That brings me to my second example: unions.
In most states today, most blue-collar jobs are "closed-shop." That means if you want to be an electrician or a carpenter or a welder, you've no choice but to join the union -- and pay dues. A portion of those dues then goes to political efforts -- "get out the vote" drives, for example -- and those efforts almost always benefit the Democrats.
In its famous Beck decision in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that unions must make the portion of union dues used for political efforts refundable to members. But for eight years, that decision was unenthusiastically enforced by the Clinton administration. Today, unions of course make acquiring such a refund far more trouble than it's worth.
A third, less-known example of leftist coercion is Ralph Nader's nationwide army of Public Interest Group chapters on college campuses across the country. PIRGs are notorious for surreptitiously conning college students into donating one, three, sometimes as many as five dollars to the organization each time they register for classes.
When I was an undergraduate at Indiana University, PIRG representatives came into my fraternity with a petition. They told us they were a "completely apolitical" organization that "represents the interests of college students."
Funny. I was a college student at the time. "Ensuring fair and affordable insurance," "asking the EPA for tougher diesel engine standards" and forcing industries to pay into a pollution cleanup fund -- all taken from the PIRG Web site -- weren't at all causes I would have found to be "in my interest."
The Indiana University chapter also sought to fund itself through a sneaky "reverse check" system, whereby each and every college student on campus automatically donated three dollars to the organization each time he registered for classes unless he specifically sought out the donate box and unchecked it.
PIRG chapters today employ a wide variety of shady funding schemes, but very little of the money extracted from college students actually stays on campus. Most of it goes to PIRG's national headquarters, and is then redistributed.
College campuses are also notorious for mandating that students pay "activity fees," which are collected into a general fund, then redistributed, usually by student government representatives, and almost always disproportionately to leftist causes.
Leftists often respond that yes, unions and some colleges often divert mandatory fees to the left, but that corporations are just as guilty when they divert shareholders' money to the right.
Not quite the case. In fact, corporations -- and particularly their philanthropic wings -- unfortunately give copious amounts of money to causes directly in opposition to their interests. Washington D.C.'s Capital Research Center has documented this bizarre trend of self-loathing advocacy for almost 20 years.
This is in part because the philanthropic wings of corporations and corporate foundations are often staffed by people interested in philanthropy, not business. And those people lean disproportionately left.
But it's also because corporations are regular made to feel guilty by shakedown schemes like Jesse Jackson's now-legendary "Wall Street Project," where he threatened big corporations with bad race-based publicity unless they open their checkbooks for his causes.
And even if corporations did give disproportionately to the right, the comparison doesn't hold up. Shareholders are free to invest in companies whose politics are more in line with their own. But if you're a Republican electrician in a state that mandates union membership, your options are simple: Pay the dues demanded of you, or find another line of work.
So to answer our original question, there really isn't a Richard Mellon Scaife of the left. There are a few Ted Turners and Barbara Streisands -- people so rich that they can afford to be generous with your money. But much of the rest of the money that funds leftist causes comes from unwitting autoworkers, from reluctant taxpayers and from the oblivious parents of college students.
It comes from you.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.