Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Money, Politics, and the First Amendment

“The sad truth is that weary and wary candidates all over America are on the phone every day to their affluent supporters, pleading for more money. However reluctantly, it's a game that all save the wealthiest candidates must play, if only to protect themselves from the big money their opponents might raise.

"Ever since 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley vs. Valeo that mandatory limits on personal spending violate a candidate's First Amendment rights, the cost of campaigns has skyrocketed. Any candidate who is not wealthy must spend huge blocks of time raising money, much of it from people who live outside his district or state. Some argue, in fact, that fundraising makes it impossible for officeholders to meet their constitutional obligations to represent the needs of the vast majority of their constituents.”

A Corrosive effect on Democracy by Richard C. Leone, the New Jersey Star Ledger, 10/24/07.

Richard C. Leone of the Century Foundation laments the plight of American politicians whom he obviously sees as victims of big money in politics. But he has it exactly backwards, reversing cause and effect.

Having accrued to itself massive power to regulate and control the economic and personal affairs of the American people, the political class is now reaping what it has sown. The relentless growth of lobbying and campaign money has paralleled the growth of government power (at all levels). But make no mistake, the increasing need of private citizens to pour money into politics is the effect. State power is the cause.

Leone and many others don’t see it this way, of course. They simply believe that a way must be found to get the special interest money out of politics without ever addressing the cause. They apparently believe that the politicians should be able to go merrily on their way using the coercive power of the state to regulate peoples lives without being “corrupted” and “brutalized”; i.e., without having to answer to the very people, as represented by campaign contributors and lobbyists, whose lives they are effecting.

But the attempt to roll back the peoples’ ability to be involved in the workings of our government is a threat to the crucial first amendment of our constitution, which guarantees in part “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” A lobby is a peaceable assembly. To gain “access” to a politician (through campaign contributions) in order to “influence” legislation that effects one’s interests is to “petition the Government”.

Admittedly, this is a less-than-desirable process that opens the door to outright bribery and corruption. But the money-in-politics problem is a direct result of our mixed economy (a mixture of freedom and government controls). To now take steps to protect politicians from the people they govern is perverse and makes a mockery of the uniquely American principle embodied in the phrase “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people”.

What’s to be done? For starters, repeal all campaign finance laws that restrict political contributions and replace them with strict “sunshine” laws that require the publication of all such contributions large and small. They should be published in such a way that all voters have easy and “user-friendly” ways of checking on who is supporting what politician. This “full and immediate disclosure” policy can then enable voters to factor political contribution patterns into their voting decisions. While certain rules concerning lobbyists may be appropriate and consistent with the first amendment, generally I oppose any restrictions on the right of lobbyists (who represent the interests of private citizens) to gain access to politicians to make their case on issues that effect them.

In the end, though, there is only one way to get money out of politics. Get politics out of money; i.e., roll back the regulatory and taxing power the state holds over industry and commerce as well as other areas of government control, such as education.

Leone ends his piece with another sneak attack on the first amendment, with the following statements:

“Does democracy work best when everyone is entitled to all the speech he can afford to buy? Or are the interests of democracy served best with a level playing field on which we all agree to "limits" on speech as a trade-off for reducing the influence that money has in the process of campaigning and governing?

"Finally, how can we call speech "free" and then place a price on it -- and an ever more expensive price at that?”

Equating free speech with the right to impose financial (or other) costs on others , which is what Leone is saying, is a complete perversion of the meaning of the term “free speech”. The first amendment states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” Ayn Rand, in her usual succinct manner, explains it best:

Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government- and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one’s own antagonists. A “right” does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort.

Private citizens have any number of ways to express their opinions, including letters to the editor, conversations with other people, financially supporting organizations that publish material advocating one’s viewpoints and, of course, the internet. Indeed, this blog post is an expression of my freedom of speech, and it’s not costing me a cent.

Yet dangerous ideas like the above get serious consideration. It is hard for me to write Leone’s position on free speech off as an innocent misunderstanding of the first amendment. The idea of imposing an obligation on some people to support the “free” speech rights of others is at the heart of an incidious bill currently making its way through Congress called, in typical Orwellian fashion, the Fairness Doctrine (which I will address in some detail in a future post).

The alleged “problem” of money in politics is here to stay as long as we accept the principle that governmental force is an appropriate method for people (or groups of people) to deal with one another. Rolling back our precious first amendment rights is no “solution”.

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