Thursday, July 17, 2008


Political Mayhem Thursday: Political money and free speech

As I have said publicly before, I think our system of government serves neither liberal or conservative goals and principles, but instead serves the needs of the wealthy.

One advantage the wealthy have is a unique ability to affect the political process through large campaign donations. Is this a legitimate form of "free speech," as the Supreme Court has held? If so, is there a public interest sufficient to curb that right?

I don't think it's free speech: free speech covers expressive conduct, yes, but how is "paying for something" expressive? If you support the message, volunteer your time or find public fora to express such feelings.

In the alternative, I'd argue that insulating policy from being bought by the wealthy is a sufficient public interest, but unfortunately I don't have a lobbyist organization to fund the drive necessary to get Congress to recognize a public interest in protecting the legislative process from the influence of the landed gentry.
"If you support the message, volunteer your time or find public fora to express such feelings."

So now you get to prescribe the appropriate means of communicating a particular message? You're only allowed to speak in the ways you authorize?

By the way, isn't donating money so that a particular political message can be placed in radio, tv, newspaper ads finding public fora in which to express feelings? Seems fairly straightforward to me.

Political advertisements, bulletins, pamphlets, blogs, etc. all require money. That money comes from donors. And those donors, through donations of their funds, are expressing a political point of view. Not only is that speech, it is the most important kind of speech. It is political speech. The very kind of speech this country was designed to protect.

And, even if you think stopping such speech is a legitimate public interest, campaign finance laws don't stop the wealthy from controlling the message. They just force them to be more creative.

McCain Feingold forced money to be diverted to 527s. That forced congress to act to restrict donations to 527s. That has led to the current effort to reinvigorate the "fairness doctrine." And all of those acts aren't about money, or getting money out of politics. Those acts are about the government regulating what you say about THE GOVERNMENT.

I can't imagine anything more fundamentally unconstitutional than that.
Public political discourse might actually be bettered without radio, TV and newspaper advertisements for candidates. Then we would have to listen to them instead of digesting soundbite-sized blips about them.

I know that political campaigns cost a lot of money. That, to me at least, is a waste of it. Why should we donate our time and money (and more importantly, have wealthy people and organizations donate their money) to getting some yahoo elected? Wasteful. Why not use that money for something of public benefit, if you're going to spend it on a campaign?

Talking is free. Writing a letter to the editor is free. TV stations and broadcast networks could air debates without the candidates having to pay any money.

In other words, I find it a bit puzzling, under an original intent interpretation of the Constitution, to say that the Founders anticipated the type of political campaigning we do today. In fact, I'd be surprised if politicians of 100 years ago anticipated or intended for politics to be the way it is. As you know, I'm no original intent believer, but it seems to me that grassroots activism is both more effective at spreading a candidate's message and avoids the corruption that runs rampant in campaign finance.

I don't think that the government should regulate content (of course not) but reasonable time, place and manner restrictions have always been found constitutional if there is a substantial government interest to be advanced and the restriction is narrowly tailored, with readily-available alternatives. I take a Holmes-ian view of free speech, but in the marketplace of ideas, the only currency should be ideas.
This just in: the wealthy have more influence than other folks.

I'm certain that wasn't true at the time of our country's founding and it is a phenomenon in no way contemplated by our founding fathers.

However shall we react to this NEW problem?
I couldn't agree more with Osler that wealthy have way too much influence. I guess I just don't share his hope that there is anything that can or ever will be done about it. my personal observation is that in pretty much every highly organized society, the wealthy have had more than their per capita share of influence. We talk a great game in America about democracy, and everyone having a voice, but the truth is, the wealthy have, for the majority of our history, had the most say in the way things go. Every once in a while a populist groundswell makes an impact, maybe some changes and even reforms, but at the end of the day, the wealthy are still on the top. sometimes the identities of the wealthy change, but it is still the wealthy that have the most pull. Do I wish it were different? I'm not sure. Probably, I do.

the rest of you guys: you are up way too late. or is it too early? either way, get some sleep.

To Lane: Your vision of how things ought to be is quite entertaining and fanciful, and would, in some parallel universe, even be kind of nice. BUT, it is never, ever, going to happen. "letters to the editor"? really? the best we can do is hope that enough wealth interests will be on different sides of a particular issue to make sure that the sides get something like "equal time." Or maybe, that the wealthy will contribute to both sides, as they pretty much do already, in order to hedge their bets and have both sides beholden to them.

to rrl: wow. Do you really believe all that? what golf course did you grow up beside? In principle I am sympathetic to your viewpoint that restricting spending is a restriction of speech. But, what solution do you propose to give a voice to those who don't have the money to buy the airtime needed to get their message across? I think that is one of the big problems with the current setup. Another big problem is the amount spent on elections. I agree with lane that it is wasteful of funds that could be so much better used elsewhere. Of course, as long as there is influence to be bought and sold, I am sure that those with the funds are going to exercise their option to buy.

To anon 5:42: that's funny. good one. hilarious.
The solution to a donation driven election process: only let billionaires run for President, 100 millionaires run for Senate, and millionaires run for House.

It costs money to get the word out about who you are, what you believe in, and what you propose. TV channels charge candidates for ads, just like beer companies and car dealers. Print shops still charge for signs and leaflets. The US mail charges candidates for postage.

People who have money have a strong interest in who gets elected. Big surprise that they want to give $2300 to the presidential, senatorial, and congressional candidates who they favor.

People who don't have money to contribute have a strong interest in who gets elected too. As far as I see it, there are three solutions, none of which are satisfactory.
1. Rely on candidates like Mike Huckabee who get alot of milage with almost no money.
2. Cap contributions. But recognize that people like Barack Obama won't get elected. Barack Obama could never have raised the money needed to compete in Iowa or the other early primaries. People with name recognition will always beat people without name rec.
3. Embrace communism. Let the committee decide.
Mike M.:

I grew up in Oak Cliff in Dallas. There wasn't a golf course anywhere near my house. However, just because I'm not rich, and didn't grow up rich (though I certainly wasn't poverty stricken either) doesn't mean I have to jump on the bandwagon of people that feel it is ok to restrict the speech of people just because they have money.

Look, I agree that giving a speech, writing a book, writing an article, etc. are all better ways of communicating ideas than buying an ad on the radio, tv, or newspaper. But just because it is a better means of communication is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the message, the speech itself, should be restricted.

Campaign finance laws do things like stop an interest group from using certain forms of media to express their opinions. I'm sure you're all fine with that when it is an oil company, but it also stops groups like NOW, planned parenthood, Greenpeace, etc. (or, we could call them, "hippies") from expressing their viewpoints in the most public forums available. I'm all for the marketplace of ideas, but I would like an actual marketplace instead of a government controlled and directed flea market of ideas.

And yes, the Court has made a mess out of speech cases with the "reasonable" time, place, and manner test. But that only applies when there is a significant/substantial interest to protect. Apparently you think that preventing rich people from expressing a political position is a legitimate interest. I do not.

And, Mike M., you are totally right. Posting that at 1:41 a.m. seems ridiculous. I need more sleep.

I always have trouble expressing myself when I post comments to blogs, which is why I do it so infrequently.

personally, I generally agree with the Supreme Court's overall rulings in this area. I did not mean to say I was in favor of restricting the right of people with wealth to express themselves. I am not interested in restricting anyone's right to express themselves, rich or poor. And I do not favor most campaign finance "reforms" because they have the effect of restricting speech, as well as creating other unintended consequences.

Having explained myself somewhat, I do feel there is a problem in the current system because money so controls whose voice gets heard; and, without money, some voices are not being heard.

Nevertheless, as a cynic, I doubt there is anything that can be done about it.
No. It is not free speech. It is precisely the opposite. It devalues democracy. It means bullies like Rupert Murdoch have more "free speech" because of their money-fueled access to politicians ... infinitely mroe access than average Americans.
And yes it is a long-standing problem in a democracy.
But that doesn't make it right.
Mike M. - clearly I don't express myself all that well either. Really only the 1st paragraph was a response to your post. The rest was more of a response to others, or the group in general. My bad.

Good to have you on team freedom!!
I have come to the conclusion that limitations on spending money is a limitation on speech. I wish this wasn't true, but it does not seem fair to say that someone can only spend so much money trying to make a point. As soon as a limit is set, control, if not censorship, is being exercised.

There's nothing noble about print reporting, as opposed to websites or television journalism. Newspapers are just an older form of media. There was plenty of nasty stuff said in newspapers about politicians before the electronic age.

One nice thing about lots of "speech" is that people don't take things as gospel quite so much. Americans realize that news sources are not necessarily "objective."

I would like to see defamation and libel laws beefed up and enforced a little more agressively and perhaps the FEC should move faster in handing out fine for bad behavior.
You can't take money out of politics because a) politics is the process we use to allocate resources in society so it's all about money/power and b) because we are a nation of around 350 million so mass media is a requirement to effectively spread ideas. Those who have more money have an advantage, as do incumbents, celebrities, etc. So what. Incumbents still lose, millionaires still wipe out after funding their own campaigns, celebrities are ridiculed. Money gets a message out, but we get to decide, individually, which ideas we buy and that's the key to a free marketplace of ideas. Consumers need as many choices as possible, regardless of their merit or how they are promoted. The solution to bad ideas is better ideas, the solution to bad speech is more speech.

Restricting a means of communication only slows the exchange of ideas, undermining market efficiency. Worse, there is always somebody w/ an agenda who controls the restrictions on the market and the restrictions are never applied equally, especially on a mass scale. If you can think of somebody you wouldn't trust to be the speech watchdog, then you shouldn't be advocating for policies that give a few people power over our discourse.

BTW, what's w/ the bashing the rich? You don't like Murdoch, what about Turner? They're not a homogenous group. And many, if not most, of them earned what they got. You wanna punish people for economic success? What's the point of making money if you can't spend it? ;) No, seriously, it's a good thing that we allow people to build and enjoy wealth in this country and I don't see the problem w/ major CEOs using their resources to put their ideas out there, especially since it isn't a zero sum game. We don't lose the ability to argue on the Razor just cause Jesse Jackson said the n-word and ate up part of a news cycle, for example.

In the interest of full disclosure, my family IS quite wealthy so feel free to denigrate my ideas because one of us figured out how to give lots of people something they wanted while getting paid for his trouble/creativity. Just kidding. We won the lottery. :)

I don't see the problem here. I am very much looking forward to President Oprah - oops I mean President OBAMA's administration.
The notion that campaign contributions result in members taking different policy stances is overly simplistic and incorrect. Most members vote fro things they believe in, and when most members are white and come from money it should not be surprising they tend to view things as white folks with money view things.

If it were as easy to buy influence as some believe, my job would be much easier.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?