Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ideas and Debate, not Disclosure, "Make for Better Voters"

Heath Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Seton Hall University, argues in an op-ed that Campaign Spending Disclosures Make for Better Voters:

New Jersey is not alone, nor is it the leader, in the size of outside money in elections. Based on current law, we know almost nothing about who donated all that money.

That has harmed the ability of New Jersey voters to make informed decisions and will continue to do harm in the future unless legislators pass campaign reforms.

I left these comments:

Leaving aside the horrendous implications of the term "outside money," I'll assume that outside money refers to contributions other than direct contributions to candidates' campaigns. Brown writes:

Based on current law, we know almost nothing about who donated all that money. That has harmed the ability of New Jersey voters to make informed decisions and will continue to do harm in the future unless legislators pass campaign reforms. 

Harmed, in what way? Neither "size" of contributions nor "secrecy" of contributors are the issue. Issues and related facts are the issue. An informed voter is someone who understands the issues and can offer intelligent opinions. Knowing who contributed how many dollars is worse than irrelevant. It simply encourages ad hominem. People who are more interested in who paid for it rather than what is said likely have little or nothing to contribute to the conversation.

Disclosure laws also violate the rights of individuals to anonymity, and there are valid reasons for wanting it; e.g., the prevalence of personal smear campaigns. Disclosure laws would discourage public discourse by discouraging individuals or groups of individuals with the resources to get ideas and opinions into the public arena from doing so.

Disclosure laws contribute nothing to informed decisions. I would argue just the opposite. People who are willing to "put their money where their mouths are" contribute information and food for thought and debate to political campaigns. I would argue that, to the extent that they discourage active participation in the electoral process, disclosure laws would actually make for less informed voters. Who but politicians who fear criticism from "outsiders" would want that?

To be fair to Brown, he did reject a common rationalization for campaign spending limits. In answer to the question, "Does more outside spending change the probability of winning elections or the likelihood of corruption?," Brown wrote:

    The research is clear that the simple notion that campaign donations lead to electoral victories and eventually to legislative favors is not valid. Research by Christopher Witko of the University of South Carolina shows that campaign financial support may lead to increased legislator attention and effort on certain policy issues, but not typically to changing a vote on a single piece of legislation or disregarding the views of constituents.
    There are many reasons for New Jersey voters to worry about corruption in politics, but the corrupting influence of money is much more complicated than we often think, and stricter caps on outside spending won’t solve this complex problem.

Though Brown indicates support for existing campaign spending limits, the logic of his argument concerning the impact of campaign spending argues for repeal of all limits. 

As noted, I was also uncomfortable with Brown's use of the term "outside money." Outside money refers to campaign spending by individuals or groups independent of direct contributions to candidates campaign funds. In the American system of constitutional republicanism, the government is the servant of the people. Referring to campaign donations as "outside money" implies an illegitimate intrusion by private citizens into the political workings of the country, which in turn implies an inversion of the American principle of "government of, for, and by the people." 

Disclosure by candidates of their direct campaign contributors probably would not be a bad thing, and candidates themselves probably find it in their interests to disclose their donors, if for no other reason than to foster an air of honesty and trustworthiness. 

But mandatory disclosure laws, like mandatory spending limits, violate basic moral and legal principles of a free nation based on individual rights.

Related Reading:

Why Are Anti-Capitalists so Obsessed with Mandatory Campaign Finance "Disclosure"?

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