Saturday, January 23, 2010

Supreme Court Decision on Campaign Reform

I was going to take a lot of time to put together a well-constructed post on this, but to my shame I do not have the mental stamina for that. Instead, I shall give you the gist of what has happened and my reaction. Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to limit spending by corporations to political campaigns. Liberals have been making a lot noise on the subject, with one Facebook poster saying, "'s over. the USA is now a wholly owned subsidiary of major corporate interests."

Apocalyptic fearmongering aside, my initial impression is that this will not end up being as scary as we imagine. The loss of liberty and good government in our society tends to come slowly. Libertarian news sources like Reason and the Cato Institute have already voiced their problems with the McCain-Feingold act. In Reason's estimation, and I agree, the good intentions of the bipartisan effort was a failure. Which leads to my first question on those criticizing the decision: do you believe McCain-Feingold was a success? Did it keep money out of politics without intruding on other liberties? If not, then perhaps policing this with legislation is unwise.

I am torn on this issue, and I share the concerns about money in politics. To those things, however, I want to send some words of caution. First, I think money will always be in politics. You know all those banks that got bailed out? You know who gave the most to the Obama campaign? Yeah, same people.

There are also two fallacies that concern me. First, it's that corporations are bad. I don't believe that. I believe they tend to be opportunists, but not inherently bad. I don't believe the motives of Coke are inherently better than that of the ACLU. Money may not make you good, but it is not a bad thing either. I am also not crazy about the government policing speech that criticises government. Government is just like business: it has its own interests at heart. I don't trust business, but I don't trust government either.

One critic said that coporations are neither individuals, nor members of the press, therefore, they are not susceptible to the same rights of freedom of speech as everyone else. What concerns me with that argument is that I'm an inclusivist when it comes to free speech. We have a history of deciding who should not be considered persons, and I would argue it does not play well. Also, what makes a member of the press? I feel like the concept is porous enough that it can't be policed. If Coke sets up a blog, have they become a member of the press? Or what if they support their favorite yellow-journalism news source, like MS-NBC or Fox News?

I believe democracy is strengthened by free speech, and the answer to bad speech is more, better speech. I am also a believer in transparency. I believe our greatest buffer in democracy to tyranny is not law but the will of the people. At this moment, I'm fine with letting anyone say anything they want, as long as we know who is saying it. If the word of corporations is dubious, and they have to put their name on something to say it, or have to file their contributions, then they may think twice about spending money on something that may back fire.

What is most perturbing is the cynicism that is spoken on the issue. President Obama, in the NY Times article mentioned, said the ruling is "
a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." Implicit in that seems to say that all that matters in politics is money and the ability to buy votes. The ability of individuals to see through cronyism and self-interest. But if that's true, if all that ever matters is who has the most money, did we ever really have a democracy? If the wisdom of the voting populace can only be moved by what money can buy, it seems to me we have already lost our government. Me, I have more faith in the wisdom of Americans. I believe America is better than that.

Instead of trying to find ideal legislation to try and maintain equity, I say let everyone with a dollar and a voice speak, and let wise men and women debate and discuss. Admittedly, it's a gamble. The worst nightmares of liberals may be correct: we may be on the short road to being owned subsidiaries of big business. But remember that you have to be an optimist to believe in democracy. You have to believe that liberty and individual choice are stronger than our vices.

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